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Speeches of Acts

Note of the Day – March 30

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Today’s note for Good Friday continues the series of notes on the Son of Man sayings in the Gospel of Luke. There are no occurrences of the expression “Son of Man” (ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou) in the account of Jesus’ trial and death in Luke 23, nor in the Synoptic tradition, but there are several instances where the expression “this man” (a&nqrwpo$ ou!to$) is used, and these are especially significant in the Lukan context.

Luke 23:4, 14, 41, 47

The expression “this man” (a&nqrwpo$ ou!to$), or “this (one)” (ou!to$), occurs 5 times in four key verses, all of which specifically relate to Jesus’ innocence:

  • V. 4—Pilate states: “I do not find any cause (for guilt) in this man
  • V. 14—Pilate again: “I did not find any cause (for guilt) in this man
    • —contrasted with the Jewish authorities: “You brought this man to me… you spoke out [i.e. brought a charge] against him”
  • V. 41—Man on cross: “This (man) has not done anything without place [i.e. out of place, improper]”
    • —contrasted with the two on the cross, who have been judged/sentenced rightly/justly [dikai/w$]
  • V. 48: Centurion: “This man (truly/really) was just [di/kaio$]”

The first two instances use the substantive ai&tion (“cause”)—Pilate find no cause or basis for guilt in Jesus, even after examination; that is to say, Jesus is innocent of the accusation brought against him (vv. 1-3). The last two refer specifically to justice (using di/kaio$/dikai/w$)—not only was Jesus innocent, he was also just or righteous. This appears again in the use of the title “Just/Righteous One” (o( di/kaio$) of Jesus in Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14.

In addition, there are two important aspects to this expression, represented by the two words or elements which comprise it:

“This (one)” (ou!to$)—The use of the demonstrative pronoun becomes a way of referring to Jesus in the early Gospel proclamation (kerygma) as recorded in the sermon-speeches of the book of Acts:

  • “This Jesus”—in Acts 1:11; 2:32, 36; 6:14; 17:3
  • “This (one)”—in Acts 2:23; 13:38-39

Note also:

  • “This man” (‘the blood of this man’, cf. above)—Acts 5:28
  • “This name”—Acts 4:10, 17; 5:28; 9:21
  • “This Moses” (Jesus/Moses parallel)—Acts 7:35, 37-38, 40

It indicates that it is specifically Jesus, in the context of his death and resurrection, in whom healing and salvation may be found.

“Man” (a&nqrwpo$)—The specific usage in Luke 23 is almost certainly an intentional echo of the Son of Man sayings related to his suffering and death, especially the Passion predictions by Jesus in Luke 9:22, 43-45; 18:31-34 (cf. the earlier notes on these–March 10, 15, 25). I have argued that in the use of “son of man” in such a context, Jesus is identifying himself with the human condition, in terms of mortality—i.e. weakness, suffering and death. Note, in particular, the Lukan version of the second Passion prediction (in 9:43b-45) with its precise parallel “son of man”–”men”:

“the Son of Man is about to be given over into the hands of men” (v. 44b)

The importance of the Son of Man in the Passion narrative has already been discussed (cf. the previous two notes), where the two main aspects of its association with Jesus are emphasized:

  1. The suffering (and death) of the Son of Man—Lk 22:22, 48
  2. His coming in glory as end-time Judge—Lk 22:69

The occurrence of “this man” in Lk 23:4, 14 (above) has a parallel in the Gospel of John:

  • John 18:29—”What charge do you bring against this man?”
  • John 19:5—”See—the man!”

In the latter reference, Pilate brings Jesus out (after the flogging) “…so that you may know that I find no cause (for guilt) in him” (cf. Lk 23:4, 14). The declaration in v. 5 may indicate contempt and ridicule, or even pity. However, it is also possible that, from the standpoint of the Gospel writer, there is a Messianic allusion (of sorts) at a deeper level for early believers. Consider the interesting parallel with Zechariah 6:12:

i)dou\ o( a&nqrwpo$ (“See—the man”)
i)dou\ a)nh/r (“See—a man”) [Zech 6:12 LXX]

Zech 6:11-12 is definitely a passage that would have been understood in a Messianic sense at the time of Jesus, based on evidence from the Qumran texts and other Jewish writings of the period. The key phrase is omv= jm^x# vya! hN@h! (“See, the man—’Sprout’ [is] his name”), cf. also in Zech 3:8. The Hebrew jm^x# refers to something springing up, i.e. a sprout (from the ground) or a branch (from the root of a tree). The use of the term in association with prophecies regarding David in Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15 (cf. also Isa 11:1) proved to be influential on Messianic thought and expression. The Messianic title “Sprout/Branch of David” [dw]d* jm^x#] appears 5 times in three different texts from Qumran. In the Septuagint (LXX) of Zech 6:12, the Hebrew vm^x# is translated literally by a)natolh/ (“springing up”), related to the verb a)nate/llw, which also occurs in this verse (a)natelei=, translating Hebrew jm*x=y]). As it happens, there is another important text where a)natolh//a)nate/llw is connected with the coming of a Man—Numbers 24:17:

“a Star will march (forth) from Jacob, and a Staff will stand (up) [i.e. arise] from Israel”
which, in the LXX, reads—
“a Star will spring/rise up [a)natelei=] out of Jacob, and a Man [a&nqrwpo$] will stand up out of Israel”

Balaam’s prophecy of the Star and the Staff was a prime Messianic text in the 1st-century B.C./A.D. (see the current series “Yeshua the Anointed”), though, interestingly, it was not applied to Jesus in the New Testament, apart from a possible allusion in Matt 2:1-12.

The “man” of Zech 6:12 is also associated with building the Temple (“…and he will build the temple/palace of YHWH”), which creates another connection with Jesus’ death and the Passion narrative:

  • An accusation against Jesus during his appearance before the Sanhedrin involved a reported saying that he would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days (Mk 14:58 / Matt 26:61, cf. also Acts 6:14). Mark and Matthew attribute this to false testimony, however, John records a similar saying by Jesus (Jn 2:19). Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple (Mk 13:1-2 par) also has a Passion setting in the Synoptic narrative.
  • The Temple-saying in Jn 2:19, along with the exposition in vv. 21-22, interprets the destruction and rebuilding of the Temple in terms of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Finally, we might also note another eschatological reference to “the man”, similar in some respects to Jesus’ usage of the title “Son of Man” in Lk 22:69 etc—namely, Acts 17:31:

“(God) has set [lit. made stand] a day in which he will [lit. is about to] judge the inhabited (world) in justice [dikaiosu/nh], in a man that he has (already) marked out [i.e. appointed, ordained], holding along as a trust (of this for us), standing him up [i.e. raising him] out of the dead”

In other words, Jesus is the man through whom God will judge the world at the end-time (i.e. the coming “Son of Man”); the sign/proof of this is that God has raised him from the dead (and exalted him to His right hand). Interestingly, we find in Acts 17, both aspects of the Son of Man outlined above:

  • This Jesus, the Anointed (One), who I announce to you…” (v. 3)
    —”the Anointed (One)…to suffer and to rise from the dead
  • The man through whom God is about to Judge the world, having raised him from the dead (v. 31)

It is the supreme paradox of the Gospel message and narrative that in Jesus, at the moment he his most fully identified with humankind and human weakness—at the time of his humiliation, suffering and death—we also find a declaration of his divine status and glory, both aspects being wrapped up in the powerful and challenging expression “the Son of Man”.

For more on the associations related to Zech 6:12 etc, above, cf. R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 29A), p. 876.

Note of the Day – December 30

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In the previous note, I looked at Acts 2:29-36 (the last section of Peter’s Pentecost sermon) from the standpoint of the earliest Christian view of Jesus—focusing on the Christological statement in verse 36 and citation of Psalm 110:1 in vv. 34-35. Today, I turn to another major sermon-speech in Acts: that by Paul in Acts 13:16-41. As I have discussed earlier, in my series of articles on the Speeches in the book of Acts, these sermon-speeches by Peter and Paul are remarkably similar in many respects, both in terms of structure and content. Verses 26-41 form the major Christological/kerygmatic section of the speech, parallel to 2:29-36; similarly, this section contains a principal Scripture passage from the Psalms, Ps 2:7, parallel to Ps 110:1—both of which represent key “Messianic” prophecies applied to Jesus.

Acts 13:26-41

Here there is a similar identification of Jesus as Savior and (Messianic) descendant of David in verse 23:

“of this (man)’s [i.e. David’s] seed [tou/toua)po\ tou= spe/rmato$]… a Savior, Yeshua [swth=ra  )Ihsou=n]”

Verse 26 emphasizes again the Gospel as the message of salvation (“the account/word of salvation”, o( lo/go$ th=$ swthri/a$). The centrality of the resurrection is also clear, in vv. 30ff, but also (perhaps) within verse 23:

“of this (man)’s seed, God, according to (His) announcement/promise, led/brought (forth) to Yisrael a Savior Yeshua”

There are two elements which are italicized above:

  • kata\ e)paggeli/an (“according to [his] announcement/promise”)—which should be understood according to three aspects in early Christian thought:
    • God’s promise(s) to Abraham and “the Fathers”, i.e. to Israel—the covenant, including the promised land
    • The (Messianic) promise of salvation/restoration—realized in the person and work of Jesus
    • The Holy Spirit specifically as the “promise of God” (cf. Acts 1:4; 2:33; Gal 3:14)
    • —all three aspects come together in Acts 2:39; 13:32; Rom 1:2; Gal 3:14ff, etc
  • h&gagen tw=|  )Israh/l (“he led/brought [forth] to Israel”)—this primarily refers to the appearance of Jesus and the beginning of his ministry; however, a number of manuscripts read h&geiren (“he raised”) instead of h&gagen, perhaps influenced by the presence of this verb in v. 22.

In verse 32, the promise of God (to the Fathers) is connected more specifically to the resurrection, as indicated by the Scripture citations which follow, beginning with Psalm 2:7:

“…that God has fulfilled this to us [their] offspring, making Yeshua stand up (again) [i.e. raising Jesus], even as it has been written in the second Psalm: ‘You are my Son, I have caused you to be (born) this day'” (v. 33)

The chain of references helps to illustrate how the speaker/author understood Ps 2:7:

  • “Son” of God (“My Son”)
    —Davidic heir (v. 34, Isa 55:3)
    —Holy One (of God) (v. 35, Ps 16:10)—connection with David (the Psalmist)

There is a similar associative matrix in Acts 2:29-36 (drawing upon the earlier citation of Ps 16:8-11 in vv. 25-28):

  • “Lord” (ku/rio$)—connection with YHWH, God the Father (vv. 25, 34, Ps 16:8; 110:1)
    —Descendent/offspring of David (v. 30)
    —Holy One (of God) (v. 27, Ps 16:10)

With the use of Ps 2:7 in Acts 13:32ff, there is evidence of a transition having taken place between:

  1. The original context of Psalm 2, and
  2. Its application to Jesus as an exalted/divine figure

Originally, the 2nd Psalm referred to the (human) king as God’s “son” in a symbolic or ritual sense, the setting of the Psalm (as with Ps 110) being the coronation/inauguration/enthronement of the (new) king. Israel shared this basic idea as part of the thought-world of the Ancient Near East, where exalted/divine imagery and epithets were frequently applied to rulers; at times, kings were thought to achieve a divine status, at least after death. Only in the royal theology of Egypt do we find anything like Divine Sonship ascribed to rulers in the metaphysical sense. Certainly in ancient Israel, this “sonship” was only symbolic, tied to the idea of God’s covenantal protection of the ruler; even so, reference to it in Scripture is rare, limited mainly to several key passages—especially Psalm 2 and 2 Samuel 7:8-16. In the latter passage, the context is a promise (by God) regarding the Davidic line and kingdom, which we also see expressed in Psalm 89. These two elements—the king as God’s “son” and promise of kingship for David’s descendents—coalesced into a “royal Messiah” concept, such as we find coming into prominence within Jewish tradition and literature in the 2nd-1st centuries B.C. Jeremiah 33:14-26 is the main prophetic passage which influenced the idea. There is no special comment on Psalm 2:7 in the surviving texts from Qumran, but 4QFlorilegium(174) does provide a Messianic interpretation of 2 Sam 7:10-14 (cf. lines 10-13). Acts 13:33 is probably the oldest surviving “Messianic” use of Psalm 2:7, with the possible exception of the variant reading at Luke 3:22 (cf. below).

Orthodox Christians may be accustomed to reading Ps 2:7 in terms of Jesus’ pre-existent Deity, and this does seem to be assumed in Hebrews, where Ps 2:7 is cited (along with 2 Sam 7:14 and Ps 110:1) in Heb 1:5ff and 5:5f. However, in the early Gospel preaching recorded in the book of Acts, the context is clearly that of Jesus’ resurrection. After the resurrection, Jesus is exalted and made to sit at the right hand of God the Father (YHWH) in heaven—this is the setting for the citation of Ps 2:7 in Acts 13:33 (as well as of Ps 110:1 in Acts 2:34-35). Almost certainly, then, the focal point of the conceptual transition regarding Ps 2:7 (cf. above) was not a belief in Jesus’ pre-existent deity, but rather his resurrection and exaltation. Only subsequently, as the result of further thought and (progressive) revelation, was this Christological connection widened. Interestingly, if Ps 2:7 is applied to the resurrection in Acts 13:33, and (it would seem) to Jesus’ divine pre-existence in Hebrews, there is a kind of ‘intermediate’ application—to Jesus’ baptism—attested in certain manuscripts and textual witnesses for Luke 3:22 [D a b c d ff2 etc and a number of Church Fathers], where, instead of the generally accepted reading—

su\ ei@ o( ui(o/$ mou o( a)gaphto/$ e)n soi\ eu)do/khsa
“You are my Son the (be)loved (one) [i.e. my beloved Son], I think good in [i.e. think well of, take delight in] you”

the voice from Heaven quotes Ps 2:7:

ui(o\$ mou ei@ su e)gw\ sh/meron gege/nnhka/ se
“You are my son, I have caused you to be (born) today”

In such a context, the implication might be that Jesus “becomes” God’s Son during the baptism (with the descent of the Spirit upon him). Whatever the origins of the variants in this verse, it clearly demonstrates that early Christians were beginning to apply Ps 2:7—along with the idea of Jesus as the “Son of God”—outside of the traditional Messianic (Davidic) setting. However, as I have indicated in these notes, the early preaching preserved in Acts 2 and 13 still maintains a vital connection with the earlier setting, emphasizing Jesus as a descendant of David (“son of David”). This will be explored further in the next daily note.

I have consistently translated the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”) in the transitive/causative sense as “caused to be (born)”. It hardly need be said that the precise, technical meaning in context differs slightly depending on whether the subject is male or female. In conventional English expression (and from a biological standpoint), only the female (mother) bears and gives birth, while the male (father) contributes toward conception. Older English had a convenient verb for rendering genna/w from the male standpoint—”to beget“—but, unfortunately, this no longer part of the regular vocabulary. Instead, we have to use inaccurate and awkward phrasing such as “become (the) father”, etc. It is indeed tempting to translate Psalm 2:7 along the lines of the old KJV (“…this day I have begotten thee”), still maintained in translations like the ESV (“…today I have begotten you”); however, I have tried to keep my (glossed) translations excessively literal, preserving, as far as possible, the fundamental meaning and etymology of each word.

Note of the Day – December 29

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In this series of Christmas season daily notes on the theme “The Birth of the Son of God”, I now turn to examine what the earliest Christian preaching may have said about Jesus as the “Son of God”. Based on the assumption that the sermon-speeches in the book of Acts, to a greater or lesser extent, genuinely reflect early preaching and Gospel proclamation (kerygma), I will be looking at passages in two of the most prominent sermons in the book—the Pentecost speech by Peter (Acts 2:14-41) and the speech by Paul in Acts 13:16-41. I have treated both of these, each in considerable detail, as a part of a series on the Speeches in the book of Acts; here I will focus only several elements related to early Christological belief. I begin with one section of Peter’s Pentecost sermon.

Acts 2:29-36

This is the last of the three sections, or divisions, of the sermon—vv. 14-21, 22-28, and 29-36—each of which includes a central citation from Scripture (Joel 2:28-32 and Psalm 16:8-11 in the first two sections). The concluding statement in verse 36 offers a concise and effective summary of early Christology:

“…let all (the) house of Yisrael know that God made him (both) Lord and Anointed, this Yeshua whom you put to the stake”

The key phrase is indicated by italics—God made [e)poi/hsen] Jesus to be both Lord [ku/rio$] and (the) Anointed [xristo/$]. What is most important to note here is that this statement is centered (and predicated) clearly upon the resurrection (and exaltation) of Jesus. God’s act of raising Jesus from the dead is even more prominent in the kerygma of the second section (vv. 22-28), with its climactic quotation (and application) of Psalm 16:8-11. Apart from the association with Jesus’ resurrection (especially in the interpretation of verse 10 of the Psalm), there are several key details which carry on into the next section of the sermon, and which should be noted:

  • Being in the presence of the Lord [o( ku/rio$], i.e. YHWH (v. 25)
  • The appellation “Holy (One)”—the adjective o%sio$ as a substantive (v. 27)
  • The connection with David (the Psalmist)

Let us now examine the two titles used in verse 36:

“Lord” (ku/rio$)—The Scripture cited in this section (in vv. 34-35) is Psalm 110:1, a key “Messianic” passage in early Christian tradition. Jesus himself cites it (Mark 12:36 par) in the context of a Scriptural discussion regarding the “Anointed One” (Messiah/Christ) as the “son of David” (cf. below); the precise interpretation of this discussion, as it has come down to us in Gospel tradition, remains difficult and much debated. Later, v. 1b is cited in the letter to the Hebrews (Heb 1:13; cf. also 10:12-13 and the use of Ps 110 in chapters 5, 7). The first “Lord” (ku/rio$) in v. 1, of course, is YHWH (hwhy); originally, the second “Lord” (ku/rio$, Heb. /oda*), referred to the (human) king—the original context of the Psalm being the king’s coronation/inauguration/enthronement. However, early on, Christians understood the second “Lord” as a reference to Jesus, in his divine status and/or nature; this was made possible as soon as the distinction between the original Hebrew words was lost, and the same Greek word (ku/rio$) was used twice—ku/rio$ being the typical word used to render hwhy/YHWH. Eventually, Christians would come to interpret Ps 110:1 in the light of Jesus’ divine pre-existence—a belief already assumed, it would seem, in Hebrews 1:13 (where Ps 110:1 is cited, but note the rather different context of Heb 10:12-13). In Acts, however, Psalm 110:1 is applied specifically in relation to Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation; the interpretive setting clearly is that of the exalted Jesus sitting at the right hand of God (Acts 2:33). This status/position next to God the Father (YHWH) means that Jesus is able to carry the same divine name (“Lord”, ku/rio$), cf. Phil 2:9ff. It may also be the basis for understanding Jesus as God’s Son—note the reference in v. 33 to Jesus receiving the “promise of the Spirit” from the Father (lit. “alongside [para/] the Father”, cf. Jn 1:14, discussed in an earlier note). Also related, perhaps, to the idea of Jesus as God’s Son is the use of o%sio$ (as a substantive title, “Holy One”) in verse 27 [Ps 16:10], parallel to the substantive a%gio$ (also typically render “holy”) in Luke 1:34—”(he) will be called Holy, the Son of God”.

“Anointed” (xristo/$)—This particular title, in context, relates to Jesus’ role as descendant of David (vv. 29-34, esp. v. 30). From the standpoint of Jewish tradition, this means, especially, the “Messiah” (jyvm = xristo$, “Anointed”)—i.e., the eschatological (Davidic) ruler who would bring about the salvation/restoration of Israel. This “messianic” expectation is clearly indicated in a number of New Testament passages (e.g., Luke 2:25, 38; Acts 1:6). It is within this same background that we should understand the title “Son of David”, which is applied to Jesus on a number of occasions. This particular title will be discussed in more detail in upcoming notes, but I would point out here that, within the Gospel tradition, it seems to come to the fore in the Passion narratives, beginning with the entry into Jerusalem. However, in the Infancy narratives Jesus as “Son of David” takes on special significance, in connection with his birth. To judge from contemporary Jewish material, we would not necessarily expect an immediate identification of the “Anointed” (Christ/Messiah) with the title “Son of God”, except in light of Psalm 2; 2 Sam 7, and the ancient ritual/symbolic tradition of the king as God’s “son” that underlies the Messiah concept—this will be discussed more in upcoming notes.

Both of these titles—”Lord” and “Anointed”—are brought together in the Lukan Infancy narrative at the birth of Jesus: “…produced [i.e. born] for you today a Savior which is (the) Anointed, (the) Lord [xristo/$ ku/rio$] in the city of David” (Luke 2:11; cf. also Ps Sol 17:36 for a similar conjunction). Note the way that these two titles qualify Jesus as the Davidic savior:

  • A Savior (swth/r), who is
    —(the) Anointed (xristo/$)
    —(the) Lord (ku/rio$)
  • in the city of David

Interestingly, we find this same sort of combination in Philippians 3:20, only there the reference is more properly to Jesus as an eschatological Savior who will come from the ‘heavenly city’ (i.e. Heaven).

Fundamentally, of course, it is the message of salvation that is central to the Gospel proclamation, such as we see in Peter’s Pentecost speech in Acts 2. In conclusion, I would note the elements here that can be found, generally, in the announcement of Good News to Mary and Joseph in Lukan/Matthean Infancy narratives:

  • Salvation from the coming judgment, involving repentance and forgiveness of sin
  • The name of Jesus (note the traditional etymology in Matt 1:21)
  • Receiving the Holy Spirit—cp. Acts 1:8 with Luke 1:35, where the Holy Spirit will “come upon” [e)pe/rxomai] believers just as the Spirit will “come upon” [e)pe/rxomai] Mary

This last point of comparison is especially important—ultimately the birth of the Son of God (Christ) cannot be separated from the birth of believers (in Christ) as sons/children of God.

 

Note of the Day – September 14

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In the previous note, I examined Romans 1:18-32 (specifically, verses 19-23) in the light of the Areopagus speech by Paul in Acts 17:16-34. Today, by way of conclusion, I will look at the climactic verses—Acts 17:29 and Romans 1:23—dealing with the matter of the worship of God through images (i.e. idols).

The starting-point

In Romans 1:23, it is the do/ca (dóxa), i.e. the proper esteem/honor/glory which belongs to God
In Acts 17:29, it is the divine origin of human beings and their kinship with God (“we are the lineage [ge/no$] of God”)

This would appear to be a major difference, the importance and significance of which will be discussed below. In each passage, this is the basis upon which the turning (away) into idolatry should be understood. In Romans, this do/ca is distorted/perverted into images of human beings and animals; in Acts, the essential human kinship with God is ignored in favor of other likenesses.

The likeness—Both passages mention that human beings considered God to be like, or in the likeness of, something else:

In Romans, they make/change (the honor/glory of) God “in(to) a likeness” (e)n o(moiw/mai)
In Acts, they customarily/habitually regard (nomi/zein) the deity to be “like” (o%moion) something

The emphasis in Romans is on the (active) perversion/distortion of the true nature and character of God, in Acts it is on a lack of proper knowledge and understanding. In Rom 1:23, the regular noun qeo/$ (“God”) is used, in Acts 17:29 it is the substantive adjective qei=o$ (“deity”); this is a relatively minor difference, since qeo/$ also appears earlier in the verse.

The images

In Romans, the emphasis is on the particular shape/form of the image (ei)kw/n)
In Acts, the emphasis is on the making of the image, in two respects:
—(a) the material (gold/silver/stone)
—(b) the work of cutting/engraving (the “cut-mark” [xa/ragma])

These different points of emphasis can be seen as complementary, as both can be found in the traditional condemnation and polemic against (pagan) idolatry in the Old Testament and Judaism, with the stress on the making/fashioning of the image perhaps more common in the Prophets.

The human role

In Romans, we are dealing with an image “of decaying/corruptible man”—in other words, the human being is the form and pattern for the image, its character and shape
In Acts, it is the artistic skill (“production and inspiration”) of man which is in view—the process of devising and shaping the image

Again, these can be seen as complementary aspects of the creation of images/idols. Human religious history shows ample evidence of man’s tendency to conceive and imagine God in his own image (cf. Gen 1:26-27), with human characteristics and attributes being applied. Today, in an era largely devoid of religious idolatry, we are able to look at this phenomena more objectively; in the ancient world, concrete images and conceptions of deity (of all sorts) were a vital part of religious expression, requiring that the matter be dealt with head-on in Scripture. It can be difficult for us today to get inside of the thinking that is at work here, the religious and theological underpinnings of (pagan) polytheism now being rather foreign to us. The context of these verses require that they be studied carefully.

The loss of human dignity—Both passages suggest not only a departure from a proper conception of God, but also from a proper understanding of human nature:

In Romans, this is perhaps indicated by emphasizing images of various kinds of animals, in addition to man; Jewish, Christian and philosophical polemic against (pagan) idolatry occasionally stressed the ‘grotesque’ forms of many animal images (however poorly understood) as an especially perverse feature of idol-worship
In Acts, this is emphasized again by the contrast between man’s (metaphysical/spiritual) kinship with God and the fashioning of images in metal and stone

This brings us back to the starting-point (cf. above), whereby it is necessary to take a closer look at the overall difference of approach between Rom 1:23 and Acts 17:29:

Doxa (do/ca)—As discussed above, this refers to the dignity, honor and esteem which is to be accorded God by human beings; it is based on:

  1. God Himself—in traditional theological terms, this would be his nature and attributes; in Romans 1:20 it is summarized as qeio/th$, “God-ness” (i.e., deity).
  2. His Work—indicated here in Rom 1:20 as His power (du/nami$), but power manifested primarily, according to Old Testament/Jewish (and early Christian) tradition, in:
    (a) His work as Creator—giving existence and life to all things, in particular, to human beings
    (b) His work on behalf of Israel—his mighty actions in delivering and establishing His people, especially through the Exodus and Conquest of the land of Canaan.
    Christian tradition and doctrine would extend this salvific work to the deliverance of the people of God from the bonds of sin and darkness.

The improper religious response to God, as described in Rom 1:18-32, involves a perversion of the doxa which belongs to God; this leads to idolatry, and, ultimately (in a similar manner), to all kinds of immorality (vv. 24-32).

Lineage of God (ge/no$ tou= qeou=)—Whereas in Romans much traditional Old Testament (and Jewish) thought is at work, in Acts 17 Paul (and/or the author of Acts) draws more extensively upon Greco-Roman philosophical language and concepts (for more detail on this, see the previous articles on the Areopagus speech). Most noteworthy is verse 28, which contains two elements:

  1. A triadic formula defining the life and existence of human beings “in Him” [e)n au)tw=|, i.e. in God]; this is very different from Paul’s usual theological/Christological language—it has been characterized as “panentheistic”, and appears to have much in common (as well as other parts of the speech) with Stoic thought, in particular.
  2. A citation from the astronomical/meteorological poem (or verse-treatise) of Aratus, an early 3rd-century B.C. author (and contemporary of Zeno of Citium) who was influenced by early Stoic thought. Paul picks up on this quotation and uses it in verse 29 as the basis for the argument against the worship of God through images.

The quotation reads: tou= ga\r kai\ ge/no$ ei)men “for we are of (his) lineage”. The word ge/no$ literally means something which has “come to be”, i.e., from or out of someone—”we have all come to be from him”. In ancient mythological-philosophical thought, human beings (or, at least, their spirits/souls) were often viewed as being the offspring of the gods in a metaphysical sense. This is foreign to the context of Israelite/Jewish monotheism, where God (YHWH) was only the Father of human beings in a symbolic sense, in terms of family relationship, or as the Creator. Paul seems to affirm this Greek philosophical-religious sentiment, by re-stating it in verse 29: ge/no$ ou@n u(pa/rxonte$ tou= qeou=, “then, being of the lineage of God”, or perhaps “…belonging to the lineage of God”, with the word ge/no$ given emphasis. Would the historic Paul (of the letters) have used such an argument? This has been much debated by commentators and scholars. It was not unusual for him to take up statements or concepts, which he might not otherwise entirely accept (without qualification), for the greater purpose of the overall message and teaching (cf. for example, his apparent use of Corinthian ‘slogans’ in 1 Cor 6:12; 7:1; 8:1, 4; 10:23). Consider also his declaration in 1 Cor 9:20-22; if we take this seriously, then Paul certainly would not have shied away from using Greek philosophy if it might help win Greeks to Christ. As I have previously noted, Acts 17:16-34 is really the only example we have of Paul (or any other New Testament speaker/author, for that matter) directly addressing pagan Gentiles. A stronger argument against Pauline authenticity is the significant number of words, expressions and concepts which do not occur in the letters, or are used in a different sense, but even this is far from decisive.

Note of the Day – September 13

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Having established the background (in the previous day’s note) for a comparison of the Areopagus speech in Acts 17:16-34 with Romans 1:18-32, let us begin the comparison here by listing out some essential points of the speech (for more detail, cf. the series on the Speeches of Acts and my supplemental article):

  • Paul notes the religious devotion—deisidaimoni/a (“fear of divine powers”) / eu)se/beia (“good/proper fear”)—of the Greeks in Athens (17:22-23). This is done with complimentary language (rhetorical device of captatio benevolentiae); earlier in the narrative (v. 16), Paul’s spirit was stirred/angered (“brought to a [sharp] point”) by the number of idols/images throughout the city.
  • A two-fold argument is presented against temple buildings (and the ritual/objects associated with them) as things “made with hands” (17:24-25):
    (1) God as Creator made all things (with his hands)
    (2) He gives all things to human beings and needs nothing from them
  • God created all human beings with a two-fold purpose (17:26-27):
    (1) to live and dwell upon the earth, with the seasons and natural features appointed to them as a divine gift
    (2) to seek God, emphasizing that he is close to (“not far from”) all human beings
  • The divine origin of humankind—stated by accommodation to Greek religious-philosophical language—is presented as a decisive argument as to the true nature of God (“Deity”, to\ qei=on), and against the worship of images (17:28-29)
  • The entire situation described in vv. 22-29 is summarized as the “times of unknowing/ignorance” which God has (up till now) overlooked (v. 30). This is contrasted in verse 31 with the “day” on which God will ultimately judge the world (and which is about to come).

Verses 22-29 are about as close as we come in the New Testament to an objective, positive appraisal of pagan/polytheistic (Greco-Roman) religion. To see this more clearly, note the following chiastic outline:

  • V. 22-23: Accomodation to Greco-Roman religious forms (altars/temples), with praise for their religious devotion, though emphasizing (at the end of v. 23) that it is done without knowledge (of the true God)
    • V. 24-25: Two-fold presentation of the true nature of God (the Creator)—contrasted with the temples/altars, etc. of Greco-Roman religion
    • V. 26-27: Two-fold presentation of God’s purpose in creating human beings—emphasizing God’s nearness to them (i.e. requiring no temples, sacrificial ritual, etc)
  • V. 28-29: Accomodation to Greco-Roman religious-philosophical language (triadic formula and citation from Aratus), stressing the kinship of human beings with (the true) God, and using it as a powerful argument against the worship of God through idols/images

Only in verse 30 does the tone shift to the more familiar theme of judgment against human wickedness, which is the very point at which Romans 1:18-32 begins. In this light, let us see how pagan religion is described by Paul here in Romans. The relevant discussion is limited to vv. 19-23, verse 19 following the announcement of God’s judgment (his wrath/anger) in v. 18 with the connecting (subordinating, causal) conjunction dio/ti, “through (the fact) that”, “for (the reason) that”, i.e. “because”. The clause governed by this conjunction is fundamental to Paul’s argument, and should be examined carefully:

to\ gnwsto\n tou= qeou= “the (thing) known of God”—i.e., that which is (or may be) known of God (or about Him); this motif of the knowledge of God is shared with the Areopagus speech
fanero\n e)stin e)n au)toi=$ “is shining (forth) in/among them”—i.e. is manifest to them (and among them); the specific idea of God manifesting himself in Creation is generally foreign to the Areopagus speech
o( qeo\$ ga\r au)toi=$ e)fane/rwsen “for God has shone forth to them”—i.e. the (true) God has manifest himself to them; the emphasis in the Areopagus speech was on knowledge of the true God, a distinction more or less taken for granted in Romans

Verses 20-21 come very close to providing an early Christian theory on the origins and development of polytheistic/pagan religion; while not satisfactory from the standpoint of an objective modern analysis of the phenomenology of religion, it remains most incisive, even apart from its theological/doctrinal value.

V. 20: “For the unseen (thing)s [a)o/rata] of Him, being brought to mind by the (things that are) made [poih/samen] from the production [i.e. creation] of the world, are seen accordingly”

These unseen aspects and attributes of God are specified as his ever-present/everlasting [ai&dio$] power [du/nami$] and deity [qeio/th$]. The noun qeio/th$, related to qeo/$ (“god”), is literally “god-ness”, which in ordinary English can only be rendered as “deity”; sometimes it is translated here as “Godhead”, but that is rather inaccurate and misleading. The word occurs only here in the New Testament, and has a parallel (of sorts) with the substantive adjective qei=o$ in Acts 17:29, which likewise is not used elsewhere in the New Testament. The idea of God’s divine and eternal attributes and nature being present and recognizable in the natural world is not specified in the Areopagus speech; at best, it might be inferred from vv. 26-27. Even more distinctive is the phrase at the end of Romans 1:21: “…unto their being [i.e. that they are] a)napolo/ghto$“—this adjective literally means “without (the ability to offer) an account for (onself)”, as before a tribunal, i.e. “without a defense”, here in the sense of “without an(y) excuse”. The idea seems to be that God’s manifestation in creation should be sufficient to bring forth proper recognition and worship of Him among human beings. While not specified as such in the Areopagus speech, there is a similar assumption that God—the true God—can be found and recognized by all human beings. In modern theological terminology, this is described as the knowledge of God by natural revelation; however, Paul makes no clear division between “natural” and “special” revelation, and the categories/labels do not exactly apply.

Verse 21 continues with a dio/ti clause parallel to that in verse 19:

“through (the fact) that [dio/ti, i.e. because] (while) knowing God, they did not esteem (him) as God nor did they show good favor…”

The verb doca/zw is typically rendered “give glory, glorify”, but the sense of “honor, regard with honor” is perhaps better; I have translated here with “esteem”. The verb eu)xariste/w literally means “show/offer a (good) favor”, but it can also refer to the proper response to being well-favored, i.e. “showing gratitude/thanks”. Paul thus attributes to all human beings (even pagan Gentiles) some degree of genuine knowledge of God, but that humankind (universally, it would seem) did not respond properly, in two respects: (1) they did not regard or honor Him as God, and (2) they did not offer thanks/gratitude in turn for the grace/favor He has shown. One would very much like Paul to expand on what he means here—precisely how should human beings have given honor to God as God? This can only be inferred from the verses that follow. An interesting comparison with the Areopagus speech may be offered here:

  • In Acts 17:23, Paul states that the Greeks (pagans) are “not knowing” (a)gnoou=te$) the true God in their religious actions and attitudes (playing on the idea of “unknown god”); this idea is echoed by the expression “times of unknowing” in verse 30. Paul praises (in a sense) their religious response, and emphasizes their lack of proper knowledge.
  • In Romans 1:20-21, Paul takes the opposite approach—affirming their knowledge (“knowing”, gno/nte$) of God, but finding fault with their religious response.

The (pagan) religious response is indicated, negatively, by the adversative conjunction a)ll’, “but (rather)”, and is characterized two-fold:

  • “they became vain/empty” (e)mataiw/qhsan)—”in their thoughts“, as typically rendered; dialogismo/$ being derived from the verb dialogi/zomai, lit. “count through, go through an account”, and generally, “to think/reason through, reckon, consider”, etc.; here it can be understood in the sense of religious thinking or conception. In Old Testament/Jewish tradition, pagan idols/images are typically referred to as “vain/empty” (ma/taio$) things, cf. Acts 14:15; 1 Pet 1:18.
  • “their heart was darkened (e)skoti/sqh)”—”heart” being qualified by the adjective a)su/neto$ (“without understanding, unintelligent”, i.e. senseless/foolish); darkness can be used as a motif for a lack of knowledge (ignorance), but also generally for sin/wickedness and immorality.

This last point is stated in harsher terms in verse 22: “declaring (themselves) to be wise, they became dull [i.e. foolish]”; then follows the concluding statement in verse 23, which describes the beginning of (pagan) idolatry and immorality:

“…and made the esteem/glory of the undecaying God other(wise) in(to) a likeness of (an) image of decaying man and (also) winged-animals and four-footed (creature)s and creeping (thing)s”

The verb a)lla/ssw “make other[wise]” more precisely means “make/change (one thing) into another”, i.e. “change, exchange”, and it is this verb which defines the onset of idolatry. Note also these important details:

  • do/ca (of God) vs. ei)kw/n (of man and animals)—do/ca is usually rendered by “glory” and, in reference to deity, covers two aspects of God: (a) corresponding to Hebrew dbk, lit. “weight” and metaphorically as “honor, dignity, majesty” and the like; (b) according to the fundamental sense of the Greek word of the (favorable) thought/consideration given to someone/something, i.e., by extension, “reputation” or the “honor/esteem” given to someone. Here, then, is a seminal religious distinction between the human conception (or understanding) of God and its translation into physical form and shape (the image [ei)kw/n]).
  • The apposition of ei)kw/n (“image”) with o(moi/wma (“likeness”)—in other words, the conception/image of God is made into a specific likeness (human, animal, etc).
  • a&fqarto$ (God) vs. fqarto/$ (man and animals)—the adjective fqarto/$ relates to the idea of “ruin” and “destruction”, often in the sense of (physical) corruption or decay; I have translated above with “undecaying/decaying”, in order to capture the vividness of the comparison, but other parallel terms could be used (e.g., “incorruptible/corruptible”, “indestructible/destrucible”).
  • The sequence from “man” to “winged (animal)s” [i.e. birds], “four-footed (creature)s”, and “creeping (thing)s” may be meant to indicate or imply a descent into even more ignoble and grotesque forms of idol-worship.

It is here, in verse 23, that we find perhaps the most notable point of comparison (and difference) with the Areopagus speech, as will be discussed (in conclusion) in the next daily note.

Note of the Day – September 12

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The next several daily notes are part of a recent study on the Areopagus Speech of Paul in Acts 17:16-34; cf. Parts 20 and 21 of my series on the Speeches of Acts, as well as a supplemental article. One of the passages in the Pauline letters which is often compared with the Areopagus speech is Romans 1:18-32. Both deal with the subject of ‘pagan’ (polytheistic) religion and idolatry prior to human beings receiving the Gospel. It has been argued by a number of critical scholars that the historic Paul (of the undisputed letters) would not have spoken the way the Paul of Acts 17 does, and that the speech (like most of the others in Acts) is a Lukan composition, i.e. primarily a product of the author of Acts (trad. Luke). I have previously noted a considerable number of words, expressions, and concepts in the speech which appear to be foreign or otherwise unattested in the letters. It is possible, however, that this is the result of the different audience—the Pauline letters (undisputed and disputed), along with the remainder of the New Testament books, were all written to and for Christians, while the Areopagus speech is virtually the only example in the New Testament of an address to pagan Gentiles outside of a Jewish or Christian context. There is no clear and simple solution to the question, on objective grounds. But what of the comparison with Romans 1:18-32? Even upon first glance, one notices a substantial difference in orientation; this difference is primarily two-fold:

  • The emphasis is on the impending judgment of God against humankind, brought out clearly at the start in verse 18, with the basis for judgment expounded forcefully in vv. 19-31 and punctuated in v. 32. The idea of judgment is present in the Areopagus speech, serving as the culminating exhortation of 17:30-31, but it is not the main theme of the speech.
  • Romans 1:18-32 deals principally with the immorality of humankind, viewed as a product of human wickedness and a result of idolatry. This is not present in the Areopagus speech at all.

Elsewhere in the letters, Paul’s references to Greco-Roman paganism are all negative, from the standpoint of salvation—the Gentiles once were in darkness, enslaved by idolatry and immorality, but God has rescued them through Christ (cf. Gal 4:8-9; Rom 6:17-19; Col 1:21; 3:7, also Eph 2:2-3). An importance point of emphasis in Romans, of course, is that all people—Jews and Gentiles alike—were slaves to sin in much the same way, whether they lived under the Law or as “sinners”. Typically, Paul refers to idolatry as well from an ethical standpoint, according to its traditional association with licentiousness and immorality (cf. Rom 2:22; 1 Cor 5:10-11; 6:9; 10:7, 14; Gal 5:20; Col 3:5 [also Eph 5:5]). In only four instances (apart from Rom 1:18-32), does he make reference to idols in the context of pagan/polytheistic religion

  • Twice, in brief statements related to the former state of Gentile believers’, before conversion:
    “…how you turned from images to be a slave to [i.e. serve] (the) living and true God” (1 Thess 1:9)
    “You have known that when you were (as the) nations, (you were ones) being led away toward voiceless images, as you might be led” (1 Cor 12:2)
  • In two separate passages related to the question of food sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8:1-13; 10:14-22)

The first two verses imply a condition of enslavement (“being led away”); the references in 1 Cor 8 and 10 deal more properly with the nature of idolatry. There were two views on this subject in early Christianity:

  1. The pagan deities were identified primarily with their images/idols, by way of polemic distortion, and so regarded as vain or nothing, i.e. they did not really exist. This is the view generally expressed throughout the Old Testament Prophets (including the Deuteronomic history, Deuteronomy–Kings) and in Jewish tradition.
  2. The deities had real existence, but were actually evil/unclean spirits or “demons”. This came to be the predominant view in early Christianity.

Interestingly, Paul seems to express both views in 1 Cor 8 and 10—on the one hand, that the deities and their idols are nothing (1 Cor 8:4-5; 10:19; also Gal 4:8), on the other, that they are “demons” (1 Cor 10:20-21).

A more sophisticated treatment of polytheistic/pagan religion is presented in Romans 1:18-32 and the Areopagus speech, which will be discussed in the next note.

The Areopagus Speech

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I have already examined the Areopagus Speech by Paul (Acts 17:16-34) in considerable detail—cf. Parts 20 and 21 of the series on the Speeches of Acts. This supplemental article will focus on the specific critical question as to the authenticity of the speech—whether or not it is compatible with what we know of Paul from the (undisputed) letters. At previous points in this series, I have noted the general assumption, shared by many critical scholars, that the speeches are largely the product of the author of Acts (traditionally, Luke), rather than a record of the purported speakers’ actual words. This view is based primarily on two factors:

  1. The way ancient (Greco-Roman and Jewish) historians use and present comparable speeches in their works. Thucydides and Josephus are typically cited for comparison.
  2. A relative uniformity in terms of language, style, citation of Scripture, etc., which is found in most of the speeches, regardless of speaker. The close structural and stylistic similarities between Peter’s Pentecost speech (Acts 2) and Paul’s speech at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13) are especially noteworthy.

The significance and extent of these two factors, however, may be disputed; traditional-conservative commentators generally regard the speeches as authentic, with perhaps some degree of adaptation and modification by the author. Legitimate arguments can be, and have been, presented on both sides; for the purposes of these studies, I have adopted a moderating position.

In addition to these basic historical-critical concerns, commentators have especially noted some unique and unusual features in the Areopagus speech, which I have already highlighted in the prior articles. According to a number of critical scholars, these features are foreign to Paul’s thought (as expressed in his letters), and, indeed, with New Testament theology as a whole. In their view, this provides a decisive additional argument that the speech is Lukan, rather than Pauline. For a clear and detailed presentation of this viewpoint, see Dibelius’ important and influential study “Paul on the Areopagus” (1939) in Studies in the Acts of the Apostles, pp. 26-77, followed by more recent commentators such as E. Haenchen (Acts, pp. 527ff).

It will be helpful to discuss again the relevant points in the speech which are viewed as foreign and/or incompatible with Pauline thought, and to offer a summary evaluation.

Verse 22—One might question the positive characterization of the Athenians’ religiosity, here using the comparative adjective deisidaimone/stero$, derived from deisidaimoni/a (deisidaimonía), which is otherwise used in the New Testament only in Acts 25:19 (a general descriptive term [of Judaism] by Festus). The word deisidaimoni/a, often translated “religion”, “religious devotion/practice”, etc, literally means “fear of divine-powers [i.e. daimons]”, either in the positive/neutral sense of “religion” or the negative/pejorative sense of “superstition”. Elsewhere in the New Testament, a daimon (daimw/n/daimo/nion) is always understood from the Jewish (monotheistic) viewpoint as an evil/unclean spirit; only in here (in Acts 17:18) is the word used in the general sense of “(lesser/local) deities” or “divine powers”. In the letters, Paul only rarely mentions “demons” (1 Cor 10:20-21, cf. also 1 Tim 4:1) and refers to Greco-Roman paganism in more standard Old Testament/Jewish terms of idolatry and immorality. However, here in the speech, there can be no doubt that the speaker/author uses the somewhat ambiguous term deisidaimoni/a with irony (their religious devotion actually reflects ignorance of the truth), which he begins to draw out with the example in verse 23. Also, it should be noted that the positive tone can be attributed to a rhetorical device known as captatio benevolentiae—the use of complimentary or flattering language as an appeal to the audience, in the hopes that they will be receptive to the line of argument in the speech.

Verse 23—Here there is perhaps some uncertainty as to the force of Paul’s argument (regarding the altar dedicated “to an unknown god”). Previously, I pointed out several ways one might understand it:

(a) The Athenians recognize that there is at least one “unknown” divine power, in addition to all the more familiar deities—Paul uses this to introduce the (true) God of Scripture and the Gospel to them.
(b) The Athenians effectively believe a hidden deity called “(the) Unknown”—i.e., the true deity which lies behind their flawed and mistaken religious conceptions, and which Paul now reveals to them.
(c) The Athenians’ (errant) religious seeking has led them to erect altars even to strange and unknown deities, an example of the “times of ignorance” (v. 30) which Paul now would dispel with the truth of the Gospel and revelation of the true God.

The narrative context suggests (a), the overall language and tone of the speech indicates (c), but Paul’s immediate response in v. 23b is closer to (b). The context of Greco-Roman religion in Acts (cf. also 14:15 and 19:26-27ff) expresses the viewpoint, derived from the Old Testament (esp. the Prophets) and Jewish tradition, that the pagan deities (identified with the idols/images) are vain and “nothing” (i.e. they do not really exist). Paul expresses this view as well in 1 Cor 8:4; 10:19 (also Gal 4:8); however, in the same passage he also expresses the more common view in early Christianity, that the deities have real existence but are actually evil spirits (“demons”), cf. 1 Cor 10:20-21. It is actually surprising how rarely Greco-Roman religion is mentioned in the New Testament, becoming a more prominent subject in the theological and apologetic writings of the second century. For this reason, it is difficult to judge how Paul (or the author of Acts) might have handled the matter in addressing pagan Greeks; typically, in the letters, pagan religion is described merely by inference, or under the stock reference of idolatry/immorality. The closest passages to the Areopagus speech would seem to be 1 Thess 1:9 and 1 Cor 12:2, though both are very brief statements.

The verb eu)sebe/w (“treat/regard with good/proper fear”), here used to describe the Athenians’ religion—i.e. good religious ‘fear’, but in ignorance—as well as the related words eu)se/beia, eu)sebh/$, and eu)sebw=$, are never used by Paul in any of the undisputed letters, occurring (frequently) only the Pastoral letters (1 Tim 2:2; 3:16; 4:7-8; 5:4; 6:3-6, 11; 2 Tim 3:5, 12; Tit 1:1; 2:12); they also appear several times elsewhere in Acts (3:12; 10:7).

Verse 25—The argument that God, as eternal Creator of all things, is himself in need of nothing, while relatively common in Hellenistic Judaism, is not much found in either the Old or New Testament writings (but note, e.g. Psalm 50:9-12). Of many examples, see 2 Macc 14:35; 3 Macc 2:9ff; Josephus Antiquities VIII.107-8, 111ff (on Solomon’s dedication of the Temple); for similar sentiments in Greco-Roman literature and philosophy, see Euripides Heracles l. 1345 and Fragment 968; Zeno of Citium in Plutarch Moralia 1034B (“On Stoic Contradictions” 6) and Clement of Alexandria Stromateis V.76 (chap. 11); and Seneca, Letters 41:1-3; 95:47-50. From this basic philosophical observation is derived a general argument against the importance of temple buildings, sacrificial offerings and other religious ritual. The anti-Temple outlook—identifying temples with idol/images as both “made with (human) hands”—appears several places in Acts (esp. in Stephen’s speech, 7:39-50, cf. also 19:26-27), but is not really a point of emphasis in Paul’s letters. The somewhat rare compound verb prosde/omai (“to request [something] besides”) is not otherwise used in the New Testament; similarly the verb qerapeu/w occurs only here in its fundamental sense of “serve, attend, take care of” (elsewhere it always has the specific meaning “heal” [from illness/disease]), and Paul never uses it in the letters.

Verse 26—The premise of the common origin of humankind (from a single person), while obviously assumed from Old Testament narrative and tradition (the line from Adam, Gen 1:26ff; 5:1ff, cf. Romans 5:12ff), is usually not stated in such an abstract manner. In the phrase e)poi/hse/n te e)c e(no\$ pa=n e&qno$ a)nqrw/pwn (“and he made out of one all [the] nation of men”), pa=$ e&qno$ could mean “every nation”, but the specific formulation here is better understood as “(the) entire nation”—i.e. the entire human race, with e&qno$ in a similar sense as ge/no$. It is a more philosophical construct, such as we find, for example, in Philo On the Creation §136, referring to the one man (Adam) as o( panto\$ tou= ge/nou$ h(mw=n a)rxhge/th$ (“the [one] leading/beginning all our lineage [ge/no$]”). The limits in the natural world appointed/designated (by God)—the seasons and physical boundaries (for human habitation)—are also relatively familiar from Greco-Roman philosophy as evidence for the existence and providential care of God (or the gods), a kind of “teleological argument” (cf. the examples cited by Dibelius, Studies pp. 27-37). Citing the seasons, etc., in reference to God’s care and concern for human beings, is known in the New Testament (Jesus’ words in Matt 5:45, cf. also James 5:7), but does not especially occur in Paul’s letters. There is, however, a reasonably close parallel in the brief speech recorded at Lystra (Acts 14:17), cf. below.

Verse 27—This verse is particularly difficult from the standpoint of biblical theology, and is frequently cited as being incompatible/incongruous with Paul’s teaching in the letters.

  • “to seek God” (zhtei=n to\n qeo\n)—The theme of “seeking God (or the Lord/YHWH)” is common in the Old Testament Prophets (Amos 5:6; Isa 55:6, et al), as an exhortation for the people of God, but rarely, if ever, is the concept applied in Scripture within the context of “natural revelation”—i.e., the general religious impulse of all human beings (including non-Jewish/non-Christian pagans). For an interesting reference to seeking God in the context of idolatry, cf. Deut 4:28-29. Of the many relevant passages in Hellenistic Judaism and Greco-Roman philosophy, see e.g., Wisdom 13:6; Philo On the Special Laws I.36; Cicero On the Nature of the Gods 2.153. It must be admitted that Paul, in the letters, does not use this sort of language; indeed, the overall argument of Romans 1-3 would suggest the opposite—that human beings (Jew and Gentile alike) do not truly seek God, nor are they able to do so, being enslaved by sin (apart from Christ), cf. the citation of Ps 14:1-3/53:1-3 in Rom 3:10-12. On a comparison with the famous passage in Rom 1:18-32, see below.
  • “if, indeed, they might touch/feel (about) him and find (him)”—The verb yhlafa/w often has the connotation of exploring by touch, even as far as feeling or groping about (like a blind person). For use of this verb in a somewhat similar context, see Philo On the Change of Names §126. While this verb implies the “times of ignorance” in which the pagans live, it also suggests that, despite their ignorance, they may somehow find God (at least in part).
  • “and yet (truly) he is present (and) not far from each one of us”—The existential use of the verb u(pa/rxw (cf. verse 24b) indicates presence, qualified by the expression “not far from” (ou) makra\n a)po). This idea of God’s immanence is relatively rare in the Old Testament (note e.g. Psalm 145:18; Jer 23:23), being expressed more precisely in Greco-Roman and Hellenistic-Jewish thought—cf. Josephus Antiquities VIII.108; Dio Chrysostom Oration 12.28; 30.26; Seneca Letter 41.1; 120:14, etc. Along the lines mentioned above, this concept of the “nearness” of God (even to pagans) is seen as problematic and generally foreign to Paul’s thinking. Perhaps the closest we come to this idea in the letters is the citation of Deut 30:14 in Romans 10:8, though the context is rather different, referring specifically to the response (in faith/trust) to the Gospel.

Verse 28—There are two separate issues in this verse: (1) the panentheistic tenor of the statement in v. 28a, and (2) the ambiguity of the citation from Aratus in v. 28b.

First, the classic statement in v. 28a: “for in him (e)n au)tw=|) we live (zw=men) and we are moved (kinou/meqa) and we are (e)sme/n)”. It sounds like it was taken out of the Greek philosophers, and yet no clear and convincing source or parallel has been found; the use of the verb kine/w is particularly suggestive of the Stoic concept of God as Mover (who himself is not moved)—see, for example, Chrysippus in the Eclogues of Stobaeus I.8.42; Philo On Allegorical Interpretation I.6 (cf. Dibelius, Studies, 48). Needless to say, there is nothing quite like this in the New Testament. The verb za/w (“live”), along with the related noun zwh/ (“life”), often are used in the New Testament in the sense of spiritual/eternal life, and are typically predicated of human beings (believers) in this way; here, of course, ordinary physical/material life is meant. The use of “in him [i.e. God]” (e)n au)tw=|) is even more unusual; Paul often speaks of believers as being “in Christ” (e.g., Rom 8:1; 12:5; 16:7; 1 Cor 1:30; 15:22, and many more instances), but not of human beings as “in God”—believers are “in God” but only insofar as they are “in Christ” (Col 3:3), and note also this frequent Christological sense in the Gospel and Epistles of John.

The quotation from Aratus (c. 310-240 B.C.), from the opening lines of his verse-treatise Phaenomena, is perhaps even more problematic. The poem begins with Zeus, describing his presence everywhere, and reminding human beings of their dependence on him, stating (as Paul cites), tou= ga\r kai\ ge/no$ e)smen “for we are of (his) lineage”. In the context of ancient mythological-philosophical thought, human beings (or, at least, their spirits/souls) were often viewed as being the offspring of the gods in a metaphysical sense. This is foreign to the basic tenets of Israelite/Jewish monotheism, where God (YHWH) was only the Father of human beings in a symbolic sense, in terms of family relationship, or as the Creator. Paul (and/or the author of Acts) is clearly drawing on the pagan philosophical understanding. For similar (Stoic) language and thought, see Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus ll. 3-5; Dion of Prusa Oration 12.27; 30.26.

Verse 29—Curiously, the author/speaker uses this premise as the basis for a critique and condemnation of idolatry (worship of God through images). While the argument against idolatry is common to Old Testament and Jewish tradition, the reasoning in v. 28b-29a is not. One might have expected a reference to the fundamental Scriptural teaching of man created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27; 9:6), which could have been adapted to Greek philosophical concepts without too much difficulty. The neuter substantive adjective qei=on, which refers more generally to “Deity”, is not used elsewhere in the New Testament.

Verse 30—The statement that God has overlooked the “times of ignorance” for pagan Gentiles up until the present time, while similar to the statement made (by Paul) in Acts 14:16, has been thought to run contrary to tenor of Paul’s thought in the letters. On the idea of humankind’s failure to perceive and understand God properly (prior to the Gospel), cf. Rom 1:20-23; 1 Cor 1:21; for the theme of ignorance (and use of a&gnoia) elsewhere in Acts, see 3:17; 13:27. The verb u(perei=don (“look over, overlook”) is not otherwise used in the New Testament. The emphasis on God’s impending judgment in vv. 30b-31, brings the statement more closely in line with the remainder of the New Testament.

Verse 31—The declaration of the coming day of Judgment is common to the basic Jewish and early Christian worldview, and stated in traditional terminology. Only the last words of the verse create difficulty:

e)n a)ndri\ (“in/by a man”)—’Western’ witnesses (D and Vulgate MSS) add  )Ihsou= (Yeshua/Jesus). Commentators have often wondered why there is not more explicitly “Christian” content in the Areopagus speech, and no specific mention of Jesus (by name, assuming the Western reading to be secondary). This may have been what prompted the addition “Jesus”, in order to, at the very least, clarify the situation and avoid misunderstanding.

pi\stin parasxw=n (“holding alongside a trust”)—this is rather a different use of pi/sti$ (“trust”) than we typically see in the New Testament (and Paul’s letters), where it usually refers to faith/belief in Christ (or in God). Here, however, it has the sense of “assurance”, “proof”, or something similar, i.e. God demonstrating his trustworthiness. Interestingly, a few Western witnesses seem to read the verb as an infinitive (parasxei=n)—”to give along trust to all (people)”—perhaps indicating a tendency to interpret pi/sti$ here in its usual sense of faith in God/Christ.

Evaluation—It cannot be denied that there are good number of terms, expressions, and concepts which are rare or unique in the New Testament (and Paul’s letters) as a whole. But, to what extent are they incompatible with Paul’s own thought and approach? The words and phrases, detailed above, which either do not appear at all in the letters, or are used in a rather different sense, would seem to be a strong (cumulative) argument against Pauline authenticity for the speech. However, the problem with such arguments based on vocabulary and linguistic style, is that they require sufficient (relevant) material for comparison. And, the fact is, we have no other substantive example of Paul addressing (pagan) Gentiles outside of a Jewish or Christian context. All of the letters (undisputed and disputed) are written to Christians, and to believers who, presumably, have been given a significant amount of Christian instruction—including familiarity with the Scriptures, Israelite history, elements of a Jewish(-Christian) worldview and thought-forms, etc. The same applies to the rest of the New Testament; the Gospels and the Letters were all written to and for Christians. It has been pointed out, correctly, that the closest parallels to Areopagus speech are from the brief address in Acts 14:15-17; note, for example—

  • The speech begins with an exhortation to turn away from “vain/empty things” (i.e. pagan deities / idols) and toward the “living God”; for a comparable statement, written not too long after the historical event described here, cf. 1 Thess 1:9. This, of course, is the overall theme and emphasis of the Areopagus speech as well.
  • The statement of God as Creator (at the end of v. 15) is parallel to that in 17:24.
  • Though worded differently, verse 16 expresses much the same thought as 17:30 (cf. above)
  • The mention of the seasons (rain and the fruitfulness for harvest) in verse 17 is echoed in 17:26f; both references treat the features of the natural world as a witness to God’s existence and presence, though, again, in rather different language.

It just so happens that these two passages are also the only examples we have in the New Testament of Christian missionaries directly addressing a pagan audience. One must, therefore, be cautious—we simply do not have enough material available for a proper comparison. Can we be certain just how Paul would have addressed a pagan Greek audience at this time? Even if we were to admit, for the moment, that the speeches in Acts 17:22-31 (and 14:15-17) are effectively the product of the author (and not Paul), this does not solve the problem entirely. A number of the distinctive words and expressions in the speech better fit the context of the the book of Acts (rather than the Pauline epistles), but only slightly so. Luke-Acts did have an educated Greco-Roman audience in mind, at least in part, but it was still written primary for Christians and from a Christian standpoint. Theophilus (Lk 1:1; Acts 1:1) was either already a Christian or was at least someone interested in the new faith, perhaps having a similar role as the God-fearer Cornelius in the book of Acts itself (chaps. 10-11).

What about passages in the letters of Paul which are, in some sense, parallel to the Areopagus speech, especially Romans 1:18-32, which is extensive enough to allow for a reasonably fair comparison? This will be discussed in a set of separate (daily) notes, followed by a concluding statement regarding the critical question.

The Speeches of Acts, Part 21: Acts 17:16-34 (continued)

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The first two sections—the Narrative Introduction (vv. 16-21) and the Introductory Address (vv. 22-23)—were discussed in Part 20 of this series; here I will be studying the remainder of the speech.

Central Declaration (vv. 24-29)

These verses, representing the core of the speech, serve the same role as the central kerygma (Gospel proclamation) and Scripture citation/application found in the prior speeches of Acts. Here, in a speech addressed to (pagan) Greeks, we find instead a fundamental theological proclamation—on the true nature of God. This declaration is in response to, and contrasted with, the religious/superstitious deisidaimoni/a (“fear of divine-powers”) of the Athenians which Paul has noted in his introductory address (vv. 22-23). In particular, Paul has drawn upon their practice of erecting altars to “unknown gods” (sg. “[an] unknown god”, v. 23) as a way of introducing to them a new (and different) understanding of God (v. 23b). Verse 24 begins immediately with o( qeo\$ (“The God…”).

I would divide this (theological) declaration into two parts: (1) The nature of God, and (2) The relation of God to humankind.

(1) The Nature of God (vv. 24-27)

Again, it is possible to break this down further: (a) the true God vs. Idols, vv. 24-25, and (b) God as Creator, vv. 26-27.

(a) The true God vs. Idols (vv. 24-25)—These verses declare the nature of the true God, identifying God (o( qeo\$) as:

“the (One) having made the world [ko/smo$] and all the (thing)s in it”

This first premise—that the true God is Creator of the universe—will be expanded in vv. 26-27; the second, related, premise follows:

“this (One) belongs as Lord of heaven and earth”

The demonstrative pronoun ou!to$ (“this [one]”) indicates that it is specifically the God proclaimed by Paul—YHWH, the God of Israel and the early Christians—who is Creator and Lord of the universe. For a similar use of the demonstrative “this (one)” (referring to Jesus) in the Gospel kerygma of the prior speeches, see Acts 1:11; 2:23, 32, 36, etc. The verb u(pa/rxw literally means “begin under”, but in customary Greek usage it covers a fairly wide range of meaning, such as “to be (present)”, “to belong”, “to exist”, and so forth; I have rendered it above as “belong”, but the phrase could just as easily be translated simply “this (One) is Lord of heaven and earth”. The third premise builds upon the first two, as the last of three steps in v. 24, and for which there are three corresponding steps in v. 25; note—

  • (He is) the (One) having made the world and all the things in it (24a)
    • this One is Lord of heaven and earth (24b)
      • he does not dwell in shrines made with (human) hands (24c)
      • he is not attended/served by the hands of men (25a)
    • (he is) not looking to receive (a single) thing [i.e. is in need of nothing] (25b)
  • He is giving life and breath and all things to all (things/people) (25c)

We move from the outer ring (God as Creator and life-giver) to the inner (worship of God), the central proposition of v. 24c-25a reprising a Temple-motif found earlier in Acts in the speech of Stephen (cf. 7:39-50). In both speeches there is a notable contrast between God the Creator (whose hands made all things) and Temples/Idols (made by hands), with repeated use of xeir– (“hand-“) and the verb poie/w (“make”)—see esp. 7:40-41, 43-44, 48, 50; 17:24-26. While the connection between the Jerusalem Temple and idolatry in Stephen’s speech is somewhat surprising (and problematic), here in Paul’s speech the anti-Temple theme relates to the more obvious critique of pagan religion. Paul (and/or the author of Acts) could easily have quoted here the same passage from Isa 66:1-2 cited in Acts 7:49-50. The closest we come to a Scripture citation in the Areopagus speech is a likely allusion to Isa 42:5 here in vv. 24-25.

The anti-Temple motif, with its corresponding rejection of sacrificial offerings, is tied to a very specific idea: that the true God is not in need of anything. Derived from the basic concept of God as the all-powerful Creator, this specific idea is actually relatively rare in the Old Testament (e.g. Psalm 50:9-12), becoming more common in Hellenistic Jewish thought—cf. 2 Macc 14:35; 3 Macc 2:9ff; Josephus Antiquities VIII.107-8, 111ff (on Solomon’s dedication of the Temple). For similar sentiments in Greco-Roman literature and philosophy, see Euripides Heracles l. 1345 and Fragment 968; Zeno of Citium in Plutarch Moralia 1034B (“On Stoic Contradictions” 6) and Clement of Alexandria Stromateis V.76 (chap. 11); and Seneca, Letters 41:1-3; 95:47-50.

For God as maker and preserver of the ko/smo$, see e.g. Gen 1:1; 14:19, 22; Exod 20:11; Psalm 146:6; Isa 42:5; Wisdom 9:9; 11:17; 2 Macc 7:23, 28; Philo On the Creation 2.7-12; On the Special Laws I.81. For the specific expression “Lord of heaven and earth”, see Tobit 7:18; Luke 10:21 (also Gen 14:19).

(b) God as Creator (vv. 26-27)—specifically, Creator of human beings:

e)poi/hse/n te e)c e(no\$ pa=n e&qno$ a)nqrw/pwn
“and he made out of one all (the) nation of men”

The expression pa=$ e&qno$ could mean “every nation” or “all (the) nation” (i.e. the entire nation), the latter seeming much more likely in context (cf. the use of pa=$ in 2:36; 3:9, 11). This, of course, relates to the creation account in Gen 1:26ff, but stated in a more abstract and philosophical manner—i.e., from a single person (e)c e(no\$) God made the entire human race. This is followed by two purpose clauses, each governed by an infinitive:

  • katoikei=n (“to put down house”, i.e. to dwell)… v. 26
  • zhtei=n (“to seek”)… v. 27—specifically, to seek God

The first indicates the establishment of human society, the second, religion.

(i) Society—This is seen as developing within the confines of God’s providential control over the natural world. Human beings come to dwell (“put down house”) upon all the face of the earth (e)pi\ panto\$ prosw/pou th=$ gh=$). God the Creator governs the world by marking out and determining (o(ri/sa$):

  • “(the) arranged times/seasons” (prostetagme/nou$ kairou\$)
  • “the marked-out limits” [i.e. boundaries] (ta\$ o)roqesi/a$) for their dwelling

There is some question as to the precise meaning of these expressions, but kairo/$ most likely refers to the natural seasons of the year, and o)roqesi/a to the natural boundaries in the physical world (i.e. mountains, rivers, desert, sea, and so forth). This pairing is also found in Psalm 74:17; and, with regard to the boundaries of human settlement, cf. Deut 32:8.

(ii) Religion—simply put, “to seek God”, or (more literally) “to seek the God” (zhtei=n to\n qeo\n), i.e. the one true God. The theme of “seeking God” is common in the Old Testament Prophets (Amos 5:6; Isa 55:6, et al), though here it corresponds to what we would call “natural religion” (and “natural revelation”); for an interesting reference to seeking God in the context of idolatry, cf. Deut 4:28-29. Of the many relevant passages in Hellenistic Judaism and Greco-Roman philosophy, see e.g., Wisdom 13:6; Philo On the Special Laws I.36; Cicero On the Nature of the Gods 2.153. An interesting clause follows:

“if, indeed, they might touch/feel (about) him and find (him)”

The verb yhlafa/w often has the connotation of exploring by touch, even as far as feeling or groping about (like a blind person). For a use of this verb in a somewhat similar context, see Philo On the Change of Names §126. The statement concludes with the clause:

“and yet (truly) he is present (and) not far from each one of us”

On the existential use of the verb u(pa/rxw, cf. verse 24b above; here it indicates presence, qualified by the expression “not far from” (ou) makra\n a)po). This idea of God’s immanence is relatively rare in the Old Testament (note e.g. Psalm 145:18; Jer 23:23), being expressed more precisely in Greco-Roman and Hellenistic-Jewish thought—cf. Josephus Antiquities VIII.108; Dio Chrysostom Oration 12.28; 30.26; Seneca Letter 41.1; 120:14, etc. We find two somewhat parallel concepts in the New Testament: (a) of the kingdom of God (and salvation) ‘coming near’ (Lk 10:9, 11; 21:28, 30-31; Rom 13:11), and (b) of believers approaching or drawing near to God (James 4:8; Heb 4:16; 7:19, 25; 10:1, 22; 11:6; Eph 2:13), but nothing quite like this statement in Acts (perhaps the nearest example being Paul’s citation of Deut 30:14 in Romans 10:8). It is a powerful theological expression, and one which would likely have appealed to Stoics and other educated Greeks in the audience.

(2) The Relation of God to Humankind (vv. 28-29)

Interestingly, instead of a citation from Scripture, here Paul quotes from a Greek poet (Aratus); the citation is in verse 28, with a brief exposition/application in verse 29. This section can be divided:

  • Theological statement (v. 28a)
  • Citation from Greek literature (v. 28b)
  • Exposition/Application (v. 29)

Theological statement (v. 28a)—”for in him (e)n au)tw=|) we live (zw=men) and we are moved (kinou/meqa) and we are (e)sme/n)”. This triadic formula sounds like it could have been taken straight out of Greek philosophy, but, as of yet, no convincing specific parallel has been found. For a detailed argument that it derives from Epimenides of Crete, see K. Lake in The Beginnings of Christianity V, pp. 246-251 (Additional Note 19) and Dibelius, Studies pp. 48-51. Is there any special significance to the order of the verbs?—”we live” (zw=men) and “we are” (e)sme/n) would seem to be parallel expressions, life and being (existence), with the passive “we are moved” (kinou/meqa) set in between. The use of the verb kine/w is particularly suggestive of the Stoic concept of God as Mover (who himself is not moved)—see, for example, Chrysippus in the Eclogues of Stobaeus I.8.42; Philo On Allegorical Interpretation I.6 (cf. Dibelius, Studies, 48). The centrality of God with regard to life and being would be consistent both with the panentheistic philosophical context of the speech and the overall Christian message. The verb za/w (“live”), along with the related noun zwh/ (“life”), often are used in the New Testament in the sense of spiritual/eternal life, and are typically predicated of human beings (believers) in this way; here, of course, ordinary physical/material life is meant. The use of “in him [i.e. God]” (e)n au)tw=|) is even more unusual; Paul often speaks of believers as being “in Christ” (e.g., Rom 8:1; 12:5; 16:7; 1 Cor 1:30; 15:22, and many more instances), but not of human beings as “in God”—believers are “in God” but only insofar as they are “in Christ” (Col 3:3), and note also this frequent Christological sense in the Gospel and Epistles of John.

Citation from Greek literature (v. 28b)—this is introduced “as some of the (verse-)makers according to you [i.e. your ‘poets’] have declared…” The citation is generally recognized as coming from the opening lines of the popular astronomical and meteorological treatise (in hexameter verse) Phaenomena by Aratus (c. 310-240 B.C.). A contemporary of Zeno, Aratus appears to have been influenced by early Stoic thought, as reflected in this his major surviving work. “Let us begin from Zeus…” (e)k Dio\$ a)rxw/mesqa), so opens the poem, telling how all things are “full” (mesto/$) of him—streets, marketplaces, seas and harbors—”and we all need Zeus” (de\ Dio\$ kexrh/meqa pa/nte$). This leads into the statement of line 5a:

tou= ga\r kai\ ge/no$ ei)men
“for we are of (his) lineage”

This is the portion Paul cites (tou= ga\r kai\ ge/no$ e)smen). The word ge/no$ literally means something which has “come to be”, i.e., from or out of someone—”we have all come to be from him”. In ancient mythological-philosophical thought, human beings (or, at least, their spirits/souls) were often viewed as being the offspring of the gods in a metaphysical sense. This is foreign to the context of Israelite/Jewish monotheism, where God (YHWH) was only the Father of human beings in a symbolic sense, in terms of family relationship, or as the Creator. Paul (and/or the author of Acts) is here drawing on the pagan philosophical understanding, a fact which has caused some difficulty for commentators (cf. below). For similar (Stoic) language and thought, see Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus ll. 3-5; Dion of Prusa Oration 12.27; 30.26. According to ancient sources, Aratus was from Cilicia (possibly Tarsus), which increases the likelihood that the historic Paul would have been familiar with his work. The same line from Aratus was apparently used by Aristobulus (fragment 4), cf. Eusebius’ Preparation for the Gospel 13.12.3ff.

Exposition/Application (v. 29)—Paul builds upon this premise (“then being [the] lineage [ge/no$] of God…”), turning it into a (decisive) argument against idolatry (worship of God through images):

“(therefore) we ought not to regard the Deity [to\ qei=on] to be like gold or silver or stone (with the) cut-mark of man’s production and inspiration”

The substantive neuter adjective qei=on refers to God/Deity in the more general sense (used only here in the New Testament); it is another example of accommodation to the understanding of a (pagan) Greek audience. The argument against idols, however, is more squarely within Old Testament and Jewish tradition, e.g. Deut 4:28; Isa 40:18; 44:9-20; Wisdom 13:10; 14:7ff; 15:7-17; and note Acts 19:26. It is interesting the way this traditional Israelite/Jewish polemic identifies the pagan deities precisely with their images, even though no intelligent pagan would have believed that the deity was nothing more than the image itself. The purpose of this distortion was almost certainly to emphasize that the pagan deities did not really exist. Early Christian tradition, on the other hand, operating with the confines of Greco-Roman paganism, tended to take a different approach, regarding the deities as real (evil) spirits (i.e. “demons”). Though Paul occasionally echoes such belief (1 Cor 10:20-21), here, in the Areopagus speech, the Old Testament Prophetic view (that the pagan deities are nothing) is implied (cf. also 1 Cor 8:4; 10:19). The word xa/ragma refers to a “mark” cut into material (including impressing or branding); elsewhere in the New Testament it is only used in the book of Revelation for the “mark of the beast”.

Concluding Exhortation (vv. 30-31)

As with most of the prior speeches in Acts, this is an exhortation to repent (metanoei=n, “have a change of mind”); this is emphasized with a pair of contrasting clauses:

  • V. 30a—me\n (‘on the one hand…’): “God has overlooked the times of unknowing [a&gnoia, i.e. ignorance]”
  • V. 30b—nu\n now (‘on the other hand’), things (are thus): “he brings along a message to all men (in) all places to repent”

It may be helpful here to track the various instances of the knowledge/knowing motif in the speech:

  • “may we know…?” literally, “are we able to know [gnw=nai]…?”—request by the Athenians (v. 19)
  • “we wish to know [gnw=nai]…”—a more direct request (v. 20)
  • the altar ‘to an unknown [a)gw/stw|] god’ (v. 23a)
  • “what you worship, unknowing [a)gnoou=nte$], I announce to you…” (v. 23b)
  • this period of pagan worship as “times of unknowing [a)gnoi/a$]” (v. 30)

For the theme of ignorance (and use of a&gnoia) earlier in Acts, see 3:17; 13:27; on the idea of human’s failure to perceive and understand God properly (prior to the Gospel), cf. Rom 1:20-23; 1 Cor 1:21. Verse 30 here is a more precise statement of what was previously said by Paul in the short address at Lystra (14:15-17, v. 16); it also reflects the situation indicated in verse 27. The “overlooking” (u(peridw\n, vb. used only here in the NT) of the nations’ past ignorance (and idol-worship) is a sign of God’s patience and graciousness.

The exhortation (and with it, the speech) concludes dramatically with an announcement of God’s impending judgment. This is an important aspect of early Christian preaching, and it is worth highlighting each element in the verse here:

e&sthsen h(me/ran, “he has set (up) a day”—that is, a time when God (and/or his representative) will appear to bring judgment on the world; this is referred to in Scripture and tradition as the “day of the Lord (day of YHWH)”.
me/llei kri/nein, “he is about to judge”—this indicates the common (and widespread) Jewish and early-Christian view that end was near and God’s judgment imminent.
th\n oi)koumen/nh, “the occupied/inhabited (world)”—i.e., all people, nations, and civilizations, the entire world
e)n dikaiosu/nh|, “in justice”—or “with justice”, according to the justice/righteousness of God, and by which the ‘righteousness’ of human beings would be measured.
e)n a)ndri\, “in/by a man”—key ‘Western’ manuscripts (D and Vulgate MSS) add  )Ihsou= (Yeshua/Jesus) in order to avoid ambiguity and misunderstanding; some commentators continue to be troubled by the lack of a specific reference to Jesus, but note a somewhat similar use of the demonstrative pronoun ou!to$ (“this [one]”) for Jesus elsewhere in the speeches of Acts (cf. above). There may also be an echo here of the Jewish/Semitic “Son of Man” concept and language, so familiar from the sayings of Jesus. The specific Greek expression indicates judgment in the presence of a (human) judge.
w!| w%risen, “whom he [i.e. God] has marked-out”—on earlier use of the verb o(ri/zw in this context (of God appointing/designating Jesus), see Acts 2:23; 10:42, the latter reference being very close overall to this verse.
pi/stin parasxw\n pa=sin, “holding alongside a trust for all (people)”—this is a different sense of pi/sti$ (“trust”) than we typically see in the New Testament (where it means “faith/belief” in God and/or Christ); here it might be rendered as “assurance”, “proof”, or something similar, i.e. God demonstrating his trustworthiness.
a)nasth/sa$ au)to\n e)k nekrw=n, “causing him [i.e. Jesus] to stand up out of the dead”—this statement that God raised Jesus from the dead is, of course, a fundamental Christian tenet and component of Gospel preaching, appearing prominently in most of the prior speeches of Acts.

Narrative Conclusion (vv. 32-34)

Verses 32-33 provide the main conclusion, with a two-fold reaction to the speech, similar to that in verse 18:

  • me\n (‘on the one hand’) some of the people joked/mocked (e)xleu/azon)
  • de\ (‘on the other hand’) some of the people said “(perhaps) we will hear you about this again”, indicating genuine interest or merely a polite refusal (as opposed to mocking)

The speech began with Paul standing “in the middle/midst of them” (v. 22), and now it concludes stating that he “went out of the middle/midst of them”, providing a precise frame to the speech within the narrative. A conclusion to the narrative itself is added in verse 34, which indicates that there was at least some positive response to Paul’s proclamation, and even a few converts (two of which, Dionysios and Damaris, are named).

For many of the references above, as well as other relevant citations from the Old Testament, Jewish and Greco-Roman literature, see Dibelius, Studies, pp. 26-77; Haenchen, Acts, pp. 517-26; Fitzmyer, Acts, pp. 603-13.

Additional Note—Any careful student or reader of the New Testament will likely have noticed a number of details in the Areopagus speech which are a bit unusual—in terms of language, style, and points of emphasis—when compared with the letters of Paul. Indeed, the speech contains several concepts and expressions which are virtually unique in the New Testament, having more in common, it would seem, with Greek philosophy (Stoic thought, in particular). This has led a good many critical commentators to question whether the historic Paul could have (or would have) spoken this way. Due to the sensitivity and difficulty of this question, I will be addressing it in a supplemental article.

The Speeches of Acts, Part 20: Acts 17:16-34

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The “Areopagus Speech” of Acts 17:16-34 is the second major speech by Paul in Acts, and the only substantial speech in the book delivered to Gentiles outside of a Jewish (or Christian) context. As such it holds a special place, and is justly famous, though perhaps not nearly so many readers and students of the New Testament are as familiar with this remarkable text as they ought to be. In several important respects, the Areopagus speech is foreshadowed by Paul’s brief address in Acts 14:15-17; the points of comparison will be addressed below. In analyzing the speech, I will be using the same basic pattern and procedure I have adopted throughout this series.

Note: References below indicated by “Dibelius, Studies” are to M. Dibelius, Studies in the Acts of the Apostles, a collection of articles and lectures published in 1951 by Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht: Göttingen (English translation 1956 by SCM Press: London). Dibelius’ landmark study “Paul on the Areopagus” (1939), pp. 26-77, which draws extensively upon the earlier work of E. Norden (Agnostos Theos [1913]), has been especially helpful in locating some of the more relevant references from Greco-Roman literature for background and comparison with details in the Acts narrative.
“Haenchen, Acts” refers to the classic critical commentary by E. Haenchen (English translation of the 14th German edition [1965] by Westminster Press, 1971).
“Fitzmyer, Acts” refers to the commentary by J. A. Fitzmyer in the Anchor Bible (AB) series, vol. 31 (1997).

The basic structure and outline of the speech is as follows:

  • Narrative Introduction (vv. 16-21, esp. vv. 19-20/21)
  • Introductory Address (vv. 22-23)
  • Central (Theological) Declaration (vv. 24-29), in two (or three) parts:
    • The nature of God (vv. 24-27)
      —God vs. Idols—Temple theme (vv. 24-25)
      —God as Creator (vv. 26-27)
    • Relation of God to humankind (vv. 28-29), with a citation (from Greek literature, v. 28) and application (v. 29)
  • Concluding Exhortation (vv. 30-31)
  • Narrative Conclusion (vv. 32-33 + 34)

Narrative Introduction (vv. 16-21)

These verses present the basic narrative, as drawn from historical tradition.

Verse 16 picks up from the narrative in vv. 10-15, where Silas and Timothy are left behind in Berea and Paul has proceeded on ahead; he is in Athens, waiting for them, according to the text of v. 16. The famous city of Athens was at this time only a faint reflection of its glorious past, having decreased considerably in size and importance; however, it remained prestigious, especially as a symbol of intellectual thought, religion and philosophy. This is perhaps the reason why the episode here was given so much prominence by the author, despite the lack of immediate missionary success (vv. 32-34). From a literary (and missiological) standpoint, Athens was, in many respects, the ideal setting to introduce the Gospel as proclaimed to educated, pagan Gentiles.

parwcu/neto to\ pneu=ma au)tou= e)n au)tw=|—the compound verb parocu/nw means “bring along to a (sharp) point”, i.e. stir or provoke (to anger): “his breath/spirit in him was brought to a (sharp) point”; the verb occurs only once (1 Cor 13:5) elsewhere in the New Testament, with the related noun parocusmo/$ used in Heb 10:24 and Acts 15:39 (of the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas).

katei/dwlo$—a compound (intensive) adjective, used only in Christian writings (and only here in the New Testament), indicating (with a bit of hyperbole) “completely (filled) with images”. On religious images (temples, altars, etc) in Athens, see the classical references in Pausanias I.17.1, Strabo 9.1.16, and Livy 45.27.

Verse 17—Mention is made of Paul’s usual missionary practice of attending local Synagogues, where he would have the opportunity to preach and teach to interested Jews and Gentile “God-fearers” (oi( fobou/menoi to\n qeo\n), cf. Acts 10:2, 22, 35; 13:16, 26; (sebo/menoi) 13:43, 50; 16:14; 17:4; 18:7. To this is added discussion with pagan Greeks/Gentiles in the marketplace (a)go/ra).

diele/geto kata\ pa=san h(me/ran pro\$ tou\$ paratugxa/nonta$, “he related throughout [i.e. discussed/disputed/argued]… according to each/every day toward [i.e. with] the (one)s he struck [i.e. happened to be] alongside”—in other words, every day, whether in the Syngaogue or Marketplace, Paul used every opportunity to speak with those he came across.

Verse 18—Mention is made of Epicureans and Stoics, representatives of two major philosophical branches (or “schools”) in ancient Greece. It is not clear whether v. 18b qualifies these two groups or whether four segments of the audience are indicated: (1) Epicureans, (2) Stoics, (3) those who are skeptical/mocking, (4) those curious about Paul’s religious ideas. It is certainly possible that the Epicureans are depicted as especially skeptical, while the Stoics would have more legitimate interest. There are definite parallels to Stoic ideas and expressions in the speech which follows (cf. below). Of all the philosophical “schools”, Stoicism probably had the most in common with Hellenistic Judaism and Early Christianity. Philo of Alexandria, whose writings are generally contemporaneous with the New Testament, skillfully combines Stoicism (and Platonism) with Jewish tradition and the text of Scripture.

sune/ballon au)tw|—the Epicureans and Stoics “cast/threw (things) together with him”, that is, they discussed and disputed with Paul, the verb sometimes indicating a heated (or hostile) argument.

spermolo/go$ (“seed-gatherer”)—this idiomatic expression characterizes the skeptical/mocking response to Paul (by the Epicureans?). Concretely, it refers to a bird picking up seeds from the ground, but could also be used as a more general reference to someone collecting junk or scraps. In an intellectual (and pejorative) sense, as here, it describes someone who gathers various ideas and teachings (as his own), but without really understanding them.

ce/nwn daimoni/wn dokei= kataggeleu\$ ei@nai, “he seems to be one bringing a message of foreign daimons“—this is the other response to Paul, more sympathetic (or at least curious), but without a clear understanding of what he was proclaiming. The word dai/mwn (daímœn, neut. daimónion), of uncertain etymology, originally referred to deities or “divine powers” in a general sense (similar to qeo/$ “god”), but gradually came to mean lesser (local) deities—in particular, the supernatural powers which were thought to be intimately connected with daily life. The fate and fortune (good or ill) experienced at the personal or family level—blessing and prosperity on the one hand, disease/death and misfortune on the other—were due to the influence of daimons. Along these lines, the idea of a personal protecting spirit (similar to a ‘guardian angel’) was relatively common. A uniquely intelligent, creative or charismatic person could also be seen as gifted and guided by a daimon (or “genius”, in the fundamental sense of the word). In the monotheistic environment of Judaism (and early Christianity), there was little place for the daimon concept, the term being used almost entirely in a negative sense, for evil or “fallen” celestial beings, unclean spirits (of disease, madness and possession), and so forth. This New Testament usage ultimately is passed down into English in the transliterated word “demon”. The reference here to “strange deities” is reminiscent of the charges brought against Socrates (Plato Apology 24B, Xenophon Memorabilia I.1.1, cf. also Josephus Against Apion II.267)—note below.

The response to Paul is glossed and explained by the author—Paul was proclaiming (“bringing the good message of”) Jesus and the Resurrection. It is possible that the Greek listeners understood a)na/stasi$ (anástasis, “standing up [again]”, i.e. resurrection) as a specific deity (“Anastasis/Resurrection”) along with Jesus.

Verse 19—Paul is taken to the Areopagus ( &Areio$ Pa/go$, “the fixed point [i.e. peak/hill] of Ares”, i.e. “Mars’ hill”), the famous hill NW of the acropolis. In earlier times, the ruling council of Athens would meet on the hill, but in Paul’s day, the council regularly met in the Agora (market-place) at the “Royal colonnade (Stoa\ Basi/leio$)”. In the narrative, it is not entirely clear whether “Areopagus” refers to the council meeting or to the ancient hill itself—the former appears to fit the narrative context better, but the latter is the more dramatic setting (especially if Paul is thought to be addressing a large crowd). It is possible that the author of Acts (trad. Luke) understood (or applied) the setting differently from earlier historical tradition.

e)pilabo/menoi, “taking (hold) upon him…”—the use of this verb could indicate that Paul is being taken into custody for a hearing (before the Council), cf. Lk 20:20, 26; Acts 16:19; 18:17; 21:30, 33, though it need not indicate anything more than that he was taken away to another location, perhaps implying a private setting (Lk 9:47; 14:4; 23:26; Acts 9:27; 23:19). “They led/brought him upon the ‘hill/peak of Ares'”—taken literally, this might mean “onto the hill”, but it could also mean “before the council” (cf. Acts 9:21; 16:9; 17:6; 18:12); some degree of force(fulness) is perhaps suggested by the use of a&gw (“lead [away]”). However, if Paul is being taken before the council, there is no indication of any (criminal) charge; it has been suggested that the Areopagus council served as an official “advisory board” for regulation of public instruction, etc., but this is far from clear, and by no means certain whether (or just how) it would apply to Paul’s situation.

duna/meqa gnw=nai, “are we able to know…?”—on one level this is simply a request by the Athenians (“may we know…”), but the author of Acts surely intends a play on words, i.e. “(how) are we able to know”? The question sets the stage for the introduction of the Gospel (to interested, educated pagans) in the speech which follows. It also establishes the key motif of the knowledge of God.

h( kainh\ au%th h( u(po\ sou= laloume/nh didaxh/, “(what is) this new teaching being spoken by you?”—the adjective kai/no$ (“new”) is parallel to “foreign/strange” (ce/no$) in verse 18, and both will appear again in the verses which follow. The emphasis is on how different and striking the message of the Gospel is within a (pagan) Greek context, compared with the Jewish/Synagogue setting.

Verse 20—”For you are carrying some (thing)s appearing as strange/foreign into our ears…”

ceni/zonta—from the verb ceni/zw (related to ce/no$, above); concretely it refers to one responding to a stranger (i.e. acting as host), but more abstractly means treating/regarding someone (or something) as foreign—that is, the Athenians regard Paul’s teaching and terminology as strange/foreign.

boulo/meqa ou@n gnw=nai, “we would wish to know”—repeating gnw=nai (“to know”) from v. 19, with the emphasis again on knowledge.

ti/na qe/lei tau=ta ei@nai, “(just) what these things wish/intend to be”—the Greek idiom is very different from English (we would say “…what these things mean“); to our ears it almost suggests that the subject of Paul’s discourse has a will and purpose of its own. For a similar use of this (classical) expression, see Acts 2:12.

Verse 21—Here the author interjects a proverbial reference to Athens (cf. Demosthenes Oration 4.10); note again the presence of the ce/no$/kai/no$ motif, referring to strangers (ce/noi) who join with native Athenians in their desire to hear or to speak of “some (especially) new thing” (ti kaino/teron). While this reference could suggest that Athenians are rather vain and fickle, the underlying message (from the larger narrative standpoint of Acts) is that Gentiles (even pagan Greeks) will ultimately be receptive to the new/strange message of the Gospel.

Introductory Address (vv. 22-23)

The use of the expression “standing in the midst/middle of…” (staqei\$e)n mesw|) elsewhere in Acts (1:15; 4:7; 27:21) strongly indicates that Paul is before the Athenian Council rather than in the middle of the clearing on top of “Mars’ hill” (cf. the ambiguity of the reference to the Areopagus, above). For similar use of the vocative address “Men…” (a&ndre$…), see numerous examples in the prior speeches (Acts 1:11, 16; 2:14, 22, 29; 3:12; 5:35; 7:2; 13:15, 16, 26, 38; 15:7, 13). In the remainder of verse 22, Paul praises the Athenians (using a bit of irony and wordplay) for their apparently religious nature, with a practical observation in verse 23—providing an example which sets up the central declaration of the speech.

Verse 22b: “I see/consider [qewre/w] how according to [i.e. in] all things you have more ‘fear of daimons‘ [deisidaimoneste/rou$] (than others do)”

As indicated above, a dai/mwn (daímœn, neut. daimónion) in the Greco-Roman context is not a “demon”, but rather a lesser/local “divine power” or “deity” in the general sense; deisidaimoni/a means “fear of daimons”, cf. the component dei/dw (“to fear / I fear…”). In this respect, fear can be understood either in a proper and pious sense, or in an excessive and misplaced manner—the distinction, one might say, between religion and superstition (see also in Acts 25:29). On the surface, Paul praises their religion (in the positive sense), using a rhetorical technique known as captatio benevolentiae (“capture of good will”), complimentary language designed to gain the audience’s attention. From an early Christian perspective, of course, the (polytheistic/idolatrous) religion of the Athenians actually reflects the “times of ignorance” (v. 30) prior to the proclamation of the Gospel, and the “vain/empty things” (14:15) from which people are to turn away.

Verse 23a: “(In) going through (the city) and looking again (carefully) at your seba/smata, I (even) found a step-platform [bwmo/$, i.e. altar] in which there was written upon (it) ‘to (an) unknown god’…”

A se/basma (sébasma) is an object or work of (religious) fear and awe, i.e. of worship and veneration (cf. on the related verb se/bomai above). Elsewhere in the New Testament, it appears only in 2 Thess 2:4 (note also the verb seba/zomai in Rom 1:25). It may refer to a specific object (i.e. idol/image), cultic action (sacrificial offering) or space (temple/altar), or even to the genuine object of worship (the deity or deities) behind the ritual and material elements. Here Paul uses it in the basic sense of the temples and altars in Athens.

The expression “to (an) unknown god” (a)gnw/stw| qew=|) is perhaps the best-known detail in the entire narrative, but, in some ways, it is among the most difficult to interpret. It needs to be examined on three different levels: (a) the historical background, (b) the context of the narrative, and (c) the way Paul (and/or the author) makes use of it.

(a) The historical background—Based on what is known from classical (and early Christian) sources, there are several relevant strands of tradition upon which the narrative may be drawing. In Pausanias’ Description of Greece I.1.4, mention is made of altars “of gods.. named unknown” (qew=n.. o)nomazome/nwn a)gnw/stwn) among those standing on the way to Athens. Pausanias refers to a similar altar “of unknown gods” (a)gnw/stwn qew=n) at Olympia (V.14.8), and Philostratus in the Life of Apollonius VI.3.5 mentions altars “of unknown divine-powers” (a)gnw/stwn daimo/nwn) in Athens. Note the following possible aspects of such references:

(i) Instances where the particular deity, to whom the altar had been dedicated, was not known; there may not have been an inscription originally. This is indicated by Diogenes Laertius in his Lives of Philosophers I.110 (a story involving Epimenides of Crete), and is probably the best way of reading Pausanias’ reference in I.1.4.
(ii) Altars dedicated to foreign deities; this appears to be the understanding of certain early Christian commentators such as Tertullian (To the Nations II.9, cf. also Against Marcion I.9) and Jerome (Commentary on Titus, 1.12).
(iii) Altars dedicated to ‘unknown’ powers, in the sense of being hidden and mysterious, or, perhaps, which people were unable (or unwilling) to name. There is something of this idea in the story Diogenes Laertius tells (I.110).

(b) The context of the narrative—The narrative in Acts is perhaps best understood according to aspect (iii) above. The author (and/or his underlying tradition) seems to be drawing upon the idea of the large number of altars in Athens, and here we do well to regard the deisidaimoni/a (“fear of divine-powers”) of the Athenians (Acts 17:22) in the full sense of this expression—i.e. they were concerned to provide altars even for strange and unknown deities, lest they offend any divine power unnecessarily. Such religious psychology underlies the context of Apollonius’ advice to Timasion in the account by Philostratus (VI.3.5, mentioned above). It also reflects a basic “superstition”—and ignorance of the true nature of God—which is central to the message in Paul’s speech.

(c) Its use in the narrative—With some clever and ironic wordplay, Paul shifts the meaning of “an unknown deity” (in one of the three senses indicated above) to “the unknown God”. This can be interpreted several ways:

(a) The Athenians recognize that there is at least one “unknown” divine power, in addition to all the more familiar deities—Paul uses this to introduce the (true) God of Scripture and the Gospel to them.
(b) The Athenians effectively believe a hidden deity called “(the) Unknown”—i.e., the true deity which lies behind their flawed and mistaken religious conceptions, and which Paul now reveals to them.
(c) The Athenians’ (errant) religious seeking has led them to erect altars even to strange and unknown deities, an example of the “times of ignorance” (v. 30) which Paul now would dispel with the truth of the Gospel and revelation of the true God.

The narrative context suggests (a), the overall language and tone of the speech indicates (c), but Paul’s immediate response in v. 23b is closer to (b):

Verse 23b: “Therefore, the (one) whom you show good fear/veneration [i.e. worship], not knowing [a)gnoou=nte$], this (one) I bring down in a message [i.e. announce/declare] to you”

Again we see the motif of knowledge:

“to an unknown god” = “worshipping (God) without knowledge”

This will be emphasized again in verse 30 with the expression “times of unknowing [a&gnoia, i.e. ignorance]” that characterizes all of Greco-Roman religious history prior to the introduction of the Gospel. Indeed, it is the knowledge of God that is the central theme of the speech, a point brought home clearly (and immediately) in the central theological declaration that follows in verse 24, and which begins emphatically with o( qeo\$… (“The God…”), i.e. the true God.

This declaration (vv. 24-29) will be examined in the continuation of this study in Part 21.

 

The Speeches of Acts, Part 19: Acts 15:6-21 (continued)

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In Part 18, I looked at the first twelve verses of chapter 15 which comprise the first half of the main section of the so-called “Jerusalem Council” narrative. Here is an outline for the chapter as a whole:

  • Part 1: Main Narrative (15:1-21)
    Narrative Introduction (vv. 1-6)
    Speech of Peter (vv. 7-11)
    Transition (v. 12)
    Speech of James (vv. 13-21)
  • Part 2: Letter from the Council (15:22-35)
    The Letter (vv. 22-29)
    Narrative Conclusion (vv. 30-35)

Verse 12 is transitional between the twin speeches of Peter and James, concluding the one and leading into the next. The two speeches are thus closely connected—two parts of a single message—and within the literary context of the book of Acts it truly represents a transitional point: Peter’s speech looks back toward the Cornelius episode and the early apostolic mission, while James’ looks ahead to the wider mission to the Gentile world. Unlike Peter’s speech, that of James more closely follows the sermon-speech pattern found in the earlier speeches of Acts:

  • Narrative Introduction/Transition (v. 12)
  • Introductory Address (vv. 13-14)
  • Citation from Scripture (vv. 15-18)
  • Concluding Exhortation (vv. 19-21), with implicit exposition/application of the Scripture
  • Narrative Conclusion (v. 22), leading directly into the Letter from the Council (vv. 22-29)

Narrative Introduction/Transition (v. 12)

There are two elements in this verse, related to the response of the assembled believers (pa=n to\ plh=qo$, “all the full [crowd]”, i.e. the number of those present/inolved):

  1. It (sg., the crowd) became silent (e)si/ghsen)—Peter’s words effectively put an end to the (immediate) dispute, cf. a similar reaction in 11:18.
  2. They (pl.) heard (h&kouon)—the people listened to the account of Barnabas and Paul (v. 12b)

It is interesting that the author does include any of Paul and Barnabas’ actual words; from the standpoint of the overall narrative, this of course would not be necessary, since the reader/hearer of the book would already be familiar with the events of chapters 13-14. It is also possible that the author was unaware of precisely what was said, and/or simply chose not to include it for other reasons. The simple statement in v. 12b is effective, however, and quietly serves the purpose of connecting the missionary work of Paul and Barnabas with the miraculous work of God in the Cornelius episode (vv. 7-9).

Introductory Address (vv. 13-14)

The opening of verse 13 (“and with/after their having kept silent…”), following upon the notice in v. 12a, may be an indication of editorial joining of separate traditions, or as a literary device to bring together the two speeches. James uses a vocative address (“Men, brothers…”, a&ndre$ a)delfoi/) familiar from earlier speeches (Acts 1:16; 2:14, 22, 29; 3:12; 5:35; 7:2; 13:15, 16, 26, 38; 15:7). The imperative “hear (me)!” (a)kou/sate) also occurs in the prior speeches (2:22; 7:2; 13:16; 22:1); on the importance of hearing (i.e. listening/understanding) in relation to the Gospel witness, etc., see the frequent use of the verb in this context in 1:4; 2:6, 8, 11, 33, 37; 3:22-23; 4:4, 19-20; 8:6; 9:21; 10:22, 33, 44; 11:18; 13:7, 44, 48; 14:9; 15:7, 12 and throughout the book.

In verse 14, James confirms (and re-affirms) Peter’s message regarding the earlier conversion of the Gentiles (in the Cornelius episode):

Shim±ôn [Simeon, i.e. Peter] has brought out [i.e. explained] even as at (the) first (how) God looked (closely) upon (them) to take out of [i.e. from] the nations a people (for/unto) his Name”

The use of the adverb prw=ton (“at [the] first”) clearly relates to Peter’s use of the phrase a)f’ h(merw=n a)rxai/wn (“from [the] beginning days”) in verse 7. The use of these expressions in reference to fairly recent events is perhaps a bit unusual, but the basic idea seems to be that from the very beginning of the Christian mission, and with such purpose and intention, God has included Gentiles among those who would come to believe. The meaning is thus twofold: (1) temporal (from the very start), and (2) in terms of importance (a primary, leading purpose). In this light, it is most significant the way that James uses vocabulary and expressions, normally applied specifically to Israel, in reference to Gentile believers:

  • “God looked (closely) upon (them)” (o( qeo\$ e)peske/yato)—By the time of the New Testament, the verb e)piske/ptomai (cf. also the less common e)piskope/w and the related noun e)piskoph/) was often used of God’s care and concern for his people (Gen 21:1; 50:24-25; Exod 3:16; 4:31; Deut 11:12; Ps 8:4; Zeph 2:7; Zech 10:3 etc), sometimes in the semi-technical sense of his coming (eschatological) visitation, for salvation/deliverance and also judgment/punishment (the emphasis on judgment tends to dominate in the OT, Exod 32:34; Job 35:15; Ps 59:5; 89:32; Jer 5:9, 29; 9:9; 11:22; 30:20; 36:21 etc, but contrast Ps 65:9; 80:14; 106:4; Jer 15:15; 29:10; Ezek 20:40; Sirach 46:14). In the NT, see especially Luke 1:68, 78; 7:16; also Lk 19:44; 1 Pet 2:12; Heb 2:6.
  • “to take out of the nations” (labei=n e)c e)qnw=n)—For the fundamental idea of God choosing Israel from among all the nations to be his (holy) people, see esp. Exod 19:5; 23:22 [LXX]; Deut 7:6; 14:2; 26:18-19. Often the verbs used in Greek are ai)re/w (“take/seize [for oneself]”, cf. Deut 26:18) or e)kle/gomai (“gather out”, Deut 14:12 and cf. its use in Acts 15:7). On a similar use of the common verb lamba/nw here (“take/receive”), see e.g. Num 8:6; Amos 2:11.
  • “a people (for/unto) his Name” (lao\n tw=| o)no/mati)—For the idea of God’s name upon, in, and among his people, see esp. Exod 23:21; Num 6:27; Deut 12:5, 11, 21; 14:23-24; 18:19f; 28:10; 2 Sam 6:2; 7:13; 1 Kings 8:16-19, 29; 2 Kings 21:4, 7; 2 Chron 6:6; 7:14; Psalm 69:36; 91:14; 118:26; Isa 29:23; 43:7; 52:6; 65:1; Jer 13:11; 23:27; Mic 4:5; Zech 10:12; 13:9; Mal 1:11; 3:16.

These themes continue on in the Scripture citation (from Amos 9:11-12) which follows.

Citation from Scripture (vv. 15-18)

James cites Amos 9:11-12, in a form which generally corresponds with the Greek (LXX) version; this is noteworthy, since it has several significant differences from the Hebrew (MT) version, differences which are actually essential to the interpretation and application given to the passage here.  A comparison of Amos 9:11-12:

Translation of the Hebrew (MT)

11 In that day I will raise up [lit. make stand] the woven-shelter of David th(at) is fallen,
and I will wall up her [pl.] (holes that are) bursting out;
And I will raise up [lit. make stand] his [sg.] torn-down-remains [i.e. ruins],
and I will build her [sg.] as in (the) days of distant (past)
12 In order that they possess the remainder of Edom
and all the nations (for) which my name is called upon them—
utterance of YHWH (the one) doing this.

Greek (LXX) with translation

11 e)n th=| h(me/ra| e)kei/nh| a)nasth/sw th\n skhnh\n Dauid th\n peptwkui=an kai\ a)noikodomh/sw ta\ peptwko/ta au)th=$ kai\ ta\ kateskamme/na au)th=$ a)nasth/sw kai\ a)noikodomh/sw au)th\n kaqw\$ ai( h(me/rai tou= ai)w=no$
12 o%pw$ e)kzhth/swsin oi( kata/loipoi tw=n a)nqrw/pwn [to\n ku/rion] kai\ pa/nta ta\ e&qnh e)f’ ou^$ e)pike/klhtai to\ o&noma/ mou e)p’ au)tou/$ le/gei ku/rio$ o( qeo\$ o( poiw=n tau/ta

11 In that day I will raise [lit. stand] up/again the tent of David th(at) has fallen and I will build up/again her [sg.] fallen-parts, and I will raise [lit. stand] up/again her [sg.] dug-down-remains [i.e. ruins] and I will build her [sg.] up/again even as (in) the days of the (past) age
12 how that the (ones) remaining down [i.e. the remainder] of men, and every nation upon whom my name has been called, might seek out [the Lord], says the Lord God the (one) doing these things.

Acts 15:16-18

11 meta\ tau=ta a)nastre/yw kai\ a)noikodmh/sw th\n skh/nhn Daui\d th\n peptwkui=an kai\ ta\ kateskamme/na au)th=$ a)noikodomh/sw kai\ a)norqw/sw au)th/n
12 o%pw$ a&n e)kzhth/swsin oi( kata/loipoi tw=n a)nqrw/pwn to\n ku/rion kai\ pa/nta ta\ e&qnh e)f’ ou^$ e)pike/klhtai to\ o&noma/ mou e)p’ au)tou/$ le/gei ku/rio$ poiw=n tau=ta
gnwsta\ a)p’ ai)w=no$

11 After these (things) I will turn up/again [i.e. return] and I will build up/again the tent of David th(at) has fallen and her [sg.] dug-down-remains [i.e. ruins] I will build up/again and I will set her [sg.] straight up/again,
12 how that the (ones) remaining down [i.e. the remainder] of men, and every nation upon whom my name has been called, might seek out the Lord—says the Lord doing these things,
known from (the) age.

The LXX generally follows the Hebrew of v. 11, although in very flat translation, having lost nearly all of the color and texture of the verse. The citation in James/Acts matches neither the Hebrew or LXX all that closely; it generally follows the vocabulary of the LXX, but in a much simpler form. The most notable differences between the LXX and James/Acts for v. 11 are:

LXX:

e)n th=| h(me/ra| e)kei/nh| (“in that day”)

{no corresponding phrase}

repeats a)noikodomh/sw (“I will build up/again”)

kaqw\$ ai( h(me/rai tou= ai)w=no$
(“even as [in] the days of the [past] age”)

Acts/James:

meta\ tau=ta (“after these [things]”)

a)nastre/yw (“I will turn up/again [i.e. return]”)

uses a)norqw/sw (“I will set straight up/again”)

{no corresponding phrase}
(reflected in gnwsta\ a)p’ ai)w=no$?)

For verse 12, LXX (A) and James/Acts are nearly identical, and both are very different from the Hebrew: “they may possess the remainder of Edom” has turned into “the remainder of men might seek out [the Lord]”—this seems to be the result of a two-fold error in translation:

  1. <d)a$ (Edom, defective spelling) was mistaken for <d*a* (Adam/man)
  2. Wvr=yy] (“they [may] possess”) was either mistaken for (or ‘corrected’ to) Wvr=d=y] (“they [may] seek”)

The lack of a clearly identified subject for the verb in Hebrew would have added to the confusion: the ‘remainder’ and ‘all the nations…’ became the subject (who/what seeks out) in the Greek version. There being no clear object for the ‘seeking’ it was easy enough to add a pronoun or “the Lord” as both the A-text and Acts/James do. That these verses would have proved difficult for Greek translators to understand, several centuries after the fact, is not surprising; it remains troublesome even today. Consider, for example, the complex set of referents indicated by the various pronominal suffixes in verse 11. As for verse 12, there are three ways to read the text:

  1. “all the nations…” is a coordinate object with “Edom”. That is, Israel will possess “Edom and all the nations”. There are two difficulties with this view: (a) the lack of a parallel object marker (Áta) for “all the nations”, and (b) the phrase “my name is called upon” being applied to the nations, which is unusual in the Old Testament. The sense would be that the nations possessed by restored Israel will come to have God’s name called upon them—that is, they will effectively be converted.
  2. “all the nations…” is the subject, coordinate with Israel (implied). This would be translated as follows: “They—even all the nations (for) which my name is called upon them—will possess the remainder of Edom”. Though such a role for the nations may fit the outlook of the LXX and Acts, it seems rather foreign to the original context of Amos; however the idea of nations united/cooperating with Israel could conceivably be in mind.
  3. The phrase “which my name is called upon them” is substantively the subject, but does not apply to “all the nations”. This would be translated: “They—(those for) which my name is called upon them—will possess the remainder of Edom and all the nations”. Here the sense would be that the (restored) Israel is identified (only) with those upon whom God’s name is called. This is an interesting possibility, and one which does fit the context of Amos to some extent.

Despite some syntactical awkwardness, I feel that the first way of reading the verse remains the best option. Of course, there is always the possibility of corruption having crept into the Masoretic text; unfortunately, only one Dead Sea document (a Prophets scroll from Wadi Murabba‘at) contains v. 12, highly fragmentary, but apparently conforming to the MT. Otherwise, apart from the variant reading of LXX/Acts, there is little basis for asserting textual corruption here.

There are other textual, literary and historical-critical difficulties regarding the citation of Amos 9:11-12 in Acts, such as:

  • At the historical level, would James have cited such a passage of Scripture from the Greek? If so, did he recognize a discrepancy with the Hebrew?
  • To what extent is this quotation the product of the author (traditionally Luke) rather than the speaker (James), whether in terms of translation or insertion?
  • What is one to make of either author or speaker using a version of Scripture which is apparently at odds with the original (inspired) Hebrew text?

These are important questions, both for an understanding of the composition of the book (Acts), and in terms of how we regard the nature and extent of inspiration. For more on this, see the supplemental articles on critical questions related to Acts 15.

Admitting that there are difficulties with the version of Amos 9:11-12 cited by Acts/James, just how does the author/speaker make use of it, and how does this differ from the original context of the passage?

Consider first the original setting of these verses in the book of Amos: they are part of an ‘epilogue’, both to the sequence of visions (7:1-9:6) and the book as a whole. After searing proclamations of judgment, concluding with a vision of destruction for Israel (9:1-6), there is a promise of restoration, beginning in vv. 7-8, and more fully in vv. 11-15. The “woven-shelter” (hKs often translated “hut”, “booth”) of David, central to this passage, is a curious image—overall, the reference seems to be to the Kingdom (of Judah) and Jerusalem (but perhaps representative of the whole Kingdom) in ruins; however the “booth”, with its echo of the exodus and wilderness wandering (commemorated by the festival of toKs), may refer to an Israelite identity that predates/transcends the Kingdom (at least the divided Kingdom of Amos’ time). The restored Israel will possess again the land (vv. 14-15), including the territory of Edom and, it would seem, the surrounding nations (v. 12), accompanied by a time of renewed prosperity (vv. 13-14).

In James’ speech (Acts 15:13-21), these verses are applied to the early Christian mission to the Gentiles, in particular to the episode of Peter and Cornelius (vv. 7-11, 14; cf. 10:1-11:18). This is done by “catchphrase bonding”, an ancient interpretive method, but one which is rather foreign to us today. By this method, different passages of Scripture (which may be otherwise unrelated), are connected by the presence of a common/similar word or phrase. Here the triggering phrase is “a people for/to His Name”:

V. 14: Simeon [i.e. Simon Peter] has related [lit. led out] even as (at the) first God looked closely upon (it) to take out of (the) nations a people for/to His Name.

One well-versed in the Scriptures—whether James of the author of Acts—might quickly associate this phrase with the reference in Amos 9:12; and, while the context of the Hebrew is perhaps not so suitable, the Greek of the LXX is very much to his purpose, for it speaks of the nations “upon whom My Name is called” seeking out [the Lord]. Unmistakably, this here is a reference to ‘God-fearing’ Gentiles (such as Cornelius) seeking God (the Lord) and responding to Christ (the Lord) in the proclamation of the Gospel. In other words, James associates the LXX version of Amos 9:12 with the early Christian mission and conversion of the Gentiles. Interestingly, in the Greek, it is no longer the remnant of Israel specifically involved but rather the remnant of (all?) men. Note how Paul treats Hosea 1:10; 2:3 in a similar manner in Romans 9:25-27.

It is all the more extraordinary that this universal reference to the nations would be associated with the “fallen booth/tent of David”, which in Amos clearly refers to Israel and the Davidic Kingdom. However, this is fully in accord with the implicit theme (in Luke-Acts) of the “restoration of Israel” in terms of the early Christian mission—beginning with the Twelve (symbolic of the twelve Tribes) and other believers in Jerusalem, to the Jews of the dispersion (among the nations), and then to ‘God-fearers’ and other Gentiles (non-Jews among the nations). Even in the Hebrew of Amos 9:12 there is the idea of nations who are (or come to be) associated with Israel and share “God’s Name upon them”.

In this light, one should also recognize an eschatological aspect of this reference in Acts. The introductory phrase itself (“after these [things] I will return”), found neither in the LXX or the Hebrew, seems to carry such a nuance. God returns to His People (cf. for example the echoes of the Sinai theophany in Acts 2), establishing His Kingdom in the new Age (“last days” cf. Acts 2:17ff, etc) which now consists of both Jews and Gentiles (cf. Paul’s grand eschatological hope/expectation in Romans 9-11). It is clear from the Qumran texts that Amos 9:11 was understood in an eschatological/Messianic sense. The Florilegium (4Q174), which strings together related Scripture passages (with a brief interpretation), associates Amos 9:11 with the promise of the Davidic dynasty in 2 Sam 7:

This (refers to the) “Branch of David”, who will arise with the Interpreter of the Law who [will rise up] in Zi[on in] the [l]ast days, as it is written: “I will raise up the hut of David which has fallen”, This (refers to) “the hut of David which has fall[en”, which he will raise up to save Israel. (translation from García Martínez & Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition Vol. 1 [Leiden/Brill, 1998/2000], p. 353)

Here the “booth/hut of David” is identified with the Messianic designation “Branch of David”, that is to say with a specific Anointed (Messianic) figure. A similar use of Amos 9:11 is found in the Cairo version of the Damascus Document (CD 7:15-16 [MS A]); this passage mentions in sequence: (a) coming days of judgment and tribulation [citing Isa 7:17], (b) exile of the ‘booth of the king’ [Amos 5:26-27], (c) raising up the ‘booth of David’ [Amos 9:11], (d) the coming of the ‘star’ [Interpreter of the Law] and ‘sceptre’ [Messiah/Prince] who will smite the nations [Num 24:17]. Such eschatological expectations are very far removed from the book of Acts (cf. 1:6ff, not to mention most of the New Testament as a whole); that is to say, they have been transferred into a different framework:

Jewish expectation c. 1st century B.C./A.D.
(Qumran texts, etc.)

  • Signs of travail, persecution, etc
  • Appearance of an Anointed figure (Messiah)
  • Judgment/war on the (wicked) nations
  • Restoration of the Kingdom

Early Christian expectation (1st cent. A.D.)
(Jesus’ teaching, Apostolic preaching, rest of NT)

  • Signs of travail, persecution, etc
  • Judgment on the World
  • Return of Christ (Parousia)
  • Entry into Life in Heaven with God/Christ
    (references to an earthly ‘Messianic’ kingdom are rare in the NT)

Concluding Exhortation (vv. 19-21)
and Narrative Conclusion (v. 22ff)

James concludes his speech with an authoritative determination, confirming Peter’s message and effectively affirming the missionary approach of Paul and Barnabas among Gentiles—

V. 19: “Therefore I judge (we/you are) not to crowd in alongside the (one)s from the nations turning upon God…”

that is, Jewish believers are not to cause (extra) trouble for Gentile converts by demanding (or expecting) that they should be circumcised and observe fully the Law of Moses (v. 1, 5). This, indeed, seems to accord with the “Law-free” Gospel proclaimed by Paul (esp. in Galatians), and is now so familiar (if perhaps somewhat misunderstood) by non-Jewish believers today that what follows from James in vv. 20-21 could come as a bit of a surprise: “…but we set upon them [i.e. send to them] (in writing) to hold (themselves) away from…”, citing four specific prohibitions (requirements) derived, it would seem, from the Law (apparently from Lev 17-18). These four legal requirements are indicated in the letter which follows (vv. 22-29). The nature and historical context of this resolution continues to be debated; and, of course, as the Church grew to become predominantly Gentile, and influenced greatly by Paul’s writings, these restrictions soon disappeared, and their precise meaning and significance is, to some extent, lost to us today. However, they are important for a proper understanding of the passage, and, as such, I have discussed them in more detail in the article on Acts 15 in my series on “The Law and the New Testament” and in a supplemental note.

The association of Amos 9:11-12 with this question of keeping the Law has an interesting parallel in the passage from the Damascus Document (mentioned above). There the “fallen booth of David” is specifically identified with the Books of the Law (Torah), related to the congregation as a whole. The reference in Num 24:17 (“star” and “sceptre”) was understood as foretelling the coming of an “Interpreter of the Law” and a “Prince of the Congregation”—these two will restore obedience to the Books of the Law (and Prophets) “whose sayings Israel has despised”. So here we have two distinct interpretations of the “booth of David” found in the Qumran community (and related groups):

  • Identified with the coming (Anointed) One who will save/restore Israel
  • Identified with the Torah, which the coming (Anointed) One[s] will restore to Israel

Can we not see Jesus as both Anointed (Christ) and Torah (Word of God), who comes to save His People?